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Medics brace as raids pick up in Afghan southeast PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 09 May 2008

REUTERS, KHOST, Afghanistan - The announcement over the military address system echoed ominously across the U.S. base in southeastern Afghanistan, freezing soldiers in their tracks.

"Attention on the FOB! Attention on the FOB!" the voice boomed in the darkness, addressing Forward Operating Base Salerno, a camp 20 km from the Pakistan border.

"Emergency blood drive, O positive. Emergency blood drive, O positive," the voice bellowed, steady yet urgent.

From various corners of the camp, soldiers slung assault rifles over their shoulders and began to run towards the combat support hospital, near the air strip. Casualties were in.

It may be barely perceptible at this stage, but slowly and surely attacks by the Taliban and militants allied to them appear to be picking up along Afghanistan's southeastern border.

U.S. commanders have been braced for a "spring offensive", a pick-up in violence tied to the season, when warmer weather allows the Taliban to work their way over the mountains from hideouts in northwestern Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

In the first few weeks of this spring, there was little change in the level of violence compared with last year, officers say. But in recent days, at least in one key region along the border, that picture has shifted, even if it may be still too early to say that a renewed Taliban offensive has started.

"A lot of things are starting to happen in the area," Lieutenant-Colonel Kathy Ponder, the chief nurse at the combat support hospital, which put out the call for more blood to treat the wounded from a roadside bomb, told Reuters on Thursday.

"The Taliban seem to be picking up on the IED (improvised explosive device) blasts and we're getting a lot of gunshot wounds. The intel we're getting is that they are targeting our area, so we're ready. We're making sure we're overstocked on what we need."

Wednesday afternoon's attack, just north of the city of Khost, near the Pakistan border, targeted a U.S. military patrol. Two U.S. soldiers and one U.S. civilian were killed, and two U.S. soldiers were wounded. The wounded pair lost both of their legs, hence the call for large amounts of blood.

"They were in a really bad way," Ponder said, praising the team of surgeons, nurses and medical technicians who operated into the early hours of Thursday to stabilise the casualties and get them evacuated to an airbase north of the capital Kabul.

"There was blood everywhere. It really did look like a warzone," she said of the two-bed operating theatre.

BORDER INFILTRATION

As well as the attack on the U.S. patrol, which raised the number of U.S. soldiers and Marines killed in Afghanistan to 498, there was a second roadside bomb blast near Khost and a failed suicide bombing in the town.

The roadside bomb killed an Afghan police commander and his bodyguard, while the suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest prematurely, killing himself and a child standing nearby, an Afghan spokesman working with the U.S. military said.

"I think it is definitely getting worse -- all this in one day," the spokesman said, pointing out that President Hamid Karzai recently put Khost and the province surrounding it on his "green" list, meaning it was supposed to be more secure.

As well as along the border region, U.S. officers say there has been a small but steady increase in violence in towns and villages deeper inside the country, particularly in remote mountainous areas directly south of Kabul.

"There's been a steady increase, although it's not yet at a seriously high intensity," said Captain David Spencer, a company commander at a base about 100 km south of Kabul. "Some of them (the militants) are probably filtering in over the border, but most of them are local guys."

For Lieutenant-Colonel Ponder, the combat hospital nurse, it all means being prepared for any eventuality.

"We're ready for things to keep picking up," she said. "We can't get complacent."

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