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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
'I saw new ammunition'
British soldiers look on as ordnance is destroyed near one of the caves in Paktia Province
Several caves full of weapons went up in smoke
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By Paul Welsh
On patrol with British marines in Afghanistan

BBC correspondent Paul Welsh witnessed British troops destroy weapons in Afghanistan with a massive controlled explosion.

He talked to troops about allegations that the weapons belonged to a coalition ally and not al-Qaeda forces.

Flames leapt more than 100 feet into the air, an invisible thump hit us in the chest a kilometre (0.62 miles) away and dust quickly filled the whole valley we overlooked.

We were watching British commandos blow up four caves full of ammunition and they burst into applause and cheers.

They said they had blown up four caves of ammunition being used by al-Qaeda.

Two days later an Afghan warlord caused a stir, claiming the weapons were nothing to do with al-Qaeda, they were his, he had placed them there 15 years ago.

Army detonation experts strap plastic explosives to the weapons
The work was very dangerous

Both might well be correct.

Standing outside the caves before they were blown up, the commander of the British Operation Snipe, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Chicken, told me they had originally been hewn into the mountain and stocked with arms by the mujahideen during their war with the Soviet Union.

This was around the time the warlord says he put the weapons there.

The colonel said since then the caves and the ammunition inside had changed hands many times.

He is sure the latest to use them were al-Qaeda.

Caves used

The Royal Marines say local people told them al-Qaeda had been there within the past month.

Villagers also pointed to the mountains and said: "Al-Qaeda, Arab".

Drag marks and other evidence outside the caves suggested to the marines they had been used in the past few weeks.

And military intelligence backed up the theory al-Qaeda were the latest to use the caves and the ammunition.

Al-Qaeda had been using the caves most recently

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Curry

Back at the British headquarters at Bagram airbase, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Curry was equally confident about who had used the caves last.

He said it did not matter who had used them and put ammunition there 15 years ago.

"That was then and this is now.

"I am confident al-Qaeda had been using the caves most recently".

Fresh ammunition

Certainly some of the ammunition was old and, as a result, unstable.

But in those caves I saw ammunition that was obviously new.

To an experienced but untrained eye it appeared much less than 15 years old.

Much was in its original packing.

The British have other reasons to believe the ammunition was in the control of al-Qaeda.

A selection of the ammunition
One cave unearthed an estimated 20 truckloads of ammunition

They say the caves they destroyed lay in what amounted to a no-man's land where the territories of three warlords met.

The Royal Marines say no warlords venture into this area any more, let alone store weapons there, because it would risk starting battles for territory.

Then there is the matter of registering arms stockpiles, the British say warlords have told coalition forces the location of all their arsenals.

They say no-one had claimed the ammunition in those caves and the idea it could slip the mind of a warlord to mention 35,000 rockets, mortars and shells is beyond comprehension.

There is a sense of frustration and disbelief among the marines at the debate about who owned the weapons 15 years ago.

The British forces at Bagram are confident they have destroyed a huge cache of weapons al-Qaeda had access to, and what they believe was the biggest controlled explosion since World War II was also a significant blow in the war against terror.

See also:

16 May 02 | South Asia
Weapons cache 'was al-Qaeda's'
13 May 02 | South Asia
Marines targeted by al-Qaeda rockets
12 May 02 | South Asia
'I saw flames leap a hundred feet'
11 May 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda arms dump destroyed
04 May 02 | South Asia
Marines seize 'al-Qaeda ammunition'
20 Apr 02 | South Asia
Last Marines arrive in Afghanistan
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