By Alexandra Williams

ISRAEL'S version of the SAS has been called in to help America's bungling Delta Force special units, it was reported last night.

The claim came as further details surfaced of a botched US mission in Afghanistan which came close to disaster.

The Sayeret Matkal, also known as Unit 262, is Israel's fearsome special operations squad with a history of assassinations and the theft of foreign signals-intelligence materials and nuclear weaponry.

It apparently began training with US units last week. Renowned US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said the Israeli aid came in the wake of the October 20 debacle in Afghanistan, when Delta Force soldiers came under ferocious Taliban fire.

Twelve of the team were said to have been injured, three of them seriously. One soldier's foot was blown off as the force of the Taliban resistance, ready and waiting for the attack, caught US commandos unawares.

An officer said: "It was like an ambush. The Taliban were fighting with light arms and either rocket-propelled grenades or mortars."

The intensity and ferocity of the Taliban response "scared the crap out of everyone," the officer is quoted as saying.

The botched mission has led to a complete rethink in planning future operations.

And it has prompted the Pentagon's civilian leadership to voice doubts over whether war commander General Tommy Franks is up to the job.

Delta Force reached Mullah Omar's house, but it had been stripped of anything that may have benefited allied intelligence gathering.

A simultaneous raid by Army Rangers on a Kandahar airstrip was carried out only after forward troops had checked the area.

It was mainly for the benefit of the cameras, it is claimed, and was a noisy affair involving the back-up of 200 rangers, AC-130 gunships and 100 Delta Force commandos.

One commentator said: "The mission was laid on like General Motors coming to the Afghan war, like we did in Vietnam."

The botched mission was not the first in American military history...

Iran 1980: Helicoptors got lost in a sandstorm, broke down and hit a refuelling aircrafet as Delta Force failed to free Americans from the US Embassy in Tehran.

Iraq 1991: More than 800 soldiers hunting for Iraqi Scud missile launchers during the conflict failed to find a single one.

Somalia 1993: US special forces arrested UNemployees and blew up buildings in error in Mogadishu as Delta Force tried to snatch warlord Mohammed Atef but targeted a UN building instead. Eighteen soldiers died and more than 1,200 Somalians died as they were used as human shields by guerrillas.

Sayeret Matkal has a far more chilling CV. It has taken part in anti and counter-terrorist operations, including the storming of a Boeing 707 held by Black September terrorists in 1972 and the killing of a gang of bus hijackers in the Gaza Strip.

But the unit is best known for storming a hijacked Air France airliner forced down by six Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda in 1976 after taking off from Tel Aviv with 98 passengers.