Afghan tribal fighters take mountain valley leading to bin Laden cave complex
TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan tribal fighters battled their way through mortar and machine-gun fire Monday and pushed Osama bin Laden loyalists from a strategic mountain valley leading to an underground complex where the terror suspect may be hiding.
B-52s and other American warplanes battered al-Qaida mortar positions on the mountaintops as the Afghan fighters — helped by U.S. special forces — seized caves in the Milawa valley in the White Mountains. A commander said forces loyal to bin Laden had been pushed back to the main complex at Tora Bora about a mile away.
U.S. Marines also intensified their hunt for Taliban leaders and members of the al-Qaida terror network around the southern city of Kandahar — the other region where Afghan and American officials think bin Laden may be hiding.
Marine “hunter-killer” teams in armored assault vehicles and backed by combat helicopters set up a staging ground at the foot of a jagged mountain about 12 miles outside Kandahar, from which officials said they could intercept fleeing fighters on the roads.
In Washington, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that although the Taliban have fallen, the military faced the tough task of tracking down bin Laden and eliminating al-Qaida. “Large numbers of al-Qaida terrorists are still at large. It’s going to be a very long and difficult job,” he said.
Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said getting rid of al-Qaida was a priority as the country tries to build a stable post-Taliban government.
“What Afghanistan needs is the full establishment of a national state, but first we must root out all the terrorists,” he told journalists in the former house of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in Kandahar. “We must burn out all these roots.”
Karzai promised there would be no amnesty for the cleric if he were caught. Omar has disappeared since the Taliban abandoned Kandahar, their birthplace and last major city, on Friday.
The Pentagon said it targeted a cave in the Tora Bora area with its largest conventional bomb, the 15,000-pound “daisy cutter,” on Sunday on suspicion the cave might contain senior al-Qaida leaders, possibly including bin Laden. Spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said damage from the strike was not known.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that intelligence reports indicate bin Laden is hiding in Tora Bora, a complex of caves and tunnels carved into the White Mountains near the Pakistani border.
Backed by U.S. bombing, troops of the anti-Taliban eastern alliance launched a fierce assault from three sides Monday against al-Qaida defenders in the Milawa valley leading to Tora Bora. Some 1,000 pro-bin Laden fighters are thought to be holed up in the area.
Alliance fighters fired machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery and Soviet-era T-55 tanks at al-Qaida positions, which responded with machine guns and mortars. As night fell, bright red tracer rounds lit up the valley and exploded in white flashes.
Late Monday, one alliance commander, Haji Zahir, said his troops had taken all the valley except for two or three mortar positions — which were coming under attack during the night.
Three alliance fighters were killed, Zahir said. He said his forces captured 15 caves, some holding ammunition stocks. Stufflebeem confirmed that U.S. special forces were in the area to help the Afghan fighters.
Across the nearby border, helicopters dropped Pakistani soldiers on mountain peaks to stop any al-Qaida fighters who try to cross the 15,400-foot snowcapped peaks.
Zahir said the bulk of the al-Qaida forces in Milawa had been pushed back to the main Tora Bora complex. Any assault there will face even stiffer resistance, he said.
“When we finally get closer to Osama bin Laden’s people, our fight will get very serious and intensified,” Zahir told The Associated Press.
Though Tora Bora is seen as the most likely site, U.S. officials have not ruled out that bin Laden could be hiding around Kandahar.
To step up the hunt, Marines from Camp Rhino — their base about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar — set up a new position closer to the city. From the new staging ground, they said, they can move swiftly to intercept fighters trying to escape. “Any Taliban that still have their weapons or don’t drop them will die,” Capt. Stewart Upton said.
Super Stallion and Sea Knight helicopters kicked up clouds of dust as they brought in food, mortars and other equipment to the Marines at the staging ground. Servicemen moved in LAV-25s — fast-moving armored vehicles with a 25mm turret cannon — and Humvees armed with TOW anti-tank missiles.
“It feels very good to be here. Everybody wants to contribute,” said Marine Major Tom Impellitteri, 32, of Pennsylvania, the commander of the company at the new site. He said his men plastered a New York Fire Department bumper sticker on a nearby bridge.
In other developments:
— The Bush administration weighed whether to make public a videotape in which bin Laden says he was pleasantly surprised by the extent of damage from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
— The European Union named veteran German diplomat Klaus Peter Klaiber as special representative to Afghanistan and Central Asia to help coordinate support for Afghanistan’s new multiethnic government.
— CIA officer Johnny “Mike” Spann was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. Spann was killed at an uprising by Taliban prisoners outside Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan on Nov. 25.
Karzai, meanwhile, freed some 1,600 political prisoners from Kandahar’s jail, where the Taliban had brought them from across the country.
The new Afghan leader planned to head for the capital, Kabul, within days to begin organizing his interim government, due to be inaugurated Dec. 22. U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was due in Kabul on Tuesday to help smooth over differences among various factions over the U.N.-brokered deal setting up the administration.
Several key Afghan leaders, all of them with large militias, are demanding the deal be renegotiated. The strongest criticism has come from within the northern alliance, despite the fact that it received a majority of seats in the 30-member Cabinet. Some alliance members of the alliance feel left out after the alliance’s largest faction — that of its titular leader Burhanuddin Rabbani — received the three key ministries: defense, foreign and interior.
In Kabul, U.S. Marines secured the grounds of the American embassy, more than 12 years after the United States closed it. It was a preliminary step toward the eventual re-establishment of a U.S. diplomatic presence — and marked the first known U.S. military presence in Kabul.
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