WASHINGTON (AP) The mission of the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan is to cut off escape routes for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, pinpoint targets for airstrikes and conduct quick strikes when the chance arises.

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday the Marines have been sent in to “help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists from moving freely about the country.” He said the Marines would number in the “hundreds, not thousands.”

Others said about 1,000 Marines would be involved. The last time that many had been put on the ground in a war zone was in the 1991 Gulf War, although Marines played a role in Somalia in 1993 as well as in Balkans peacekeeping operations.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, said five U.S. military members suffered serious injuries yesterday when a U.S. attack plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on them near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. A Pentagon statement said the injuries were not life-threatening and the five were being evacuated to Landstuhl Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany. Their names were not released.

Rumsfeld was reluctant to discuss the Marines” role in detail, but it appeared they may not be a traditional ground force that seeks contact with enemy troops like the Marines” Gulf War push into Kuwait to oust an occupying Iraqi army.

Instead, after establishing their base in the vicinity of Kandahar, they may focus mainly on blocking roadways leading away from the city rather than assault the city itself in search of fighters. In this way they could make it harder for enemy forces to resupply, regroup or escape across the Pakistani border.

In an early indication of their role, Marine Cobra helicopters participated in an airstrike on an armored column near their new base. Although the helicopters did not fire on the vehicles Navy F-14 Tomcat jets did they were in the area and ready to fire if needed, said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

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