Bombing intensifies as tribesmen and U.S. special forces attack; bin Laden may be bottled up
TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) — As U.S. planes strafed and bombed al-Qaida positions, Afghan tribesmen and American special forces advanced against Osama bin Laden’s fighters in a snowy mountain canyon Thursday, vowing to wipe them out after surrender negotiations fell through.
The United States has sent more special operations forces into the Tora Bora region, where they could engage in direct combat with al-Qaida fighters who may be protecting Osama bin Laden, defense officials said Thursday.
Intense bombing and advances by U.S. commandos and anti-Taliban rebels have reduced substantially the area in which bin Laden and his forces can operate safely within the cave-dotted mountains near Tora Bora, U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Officials believe bin Laden may be bottled up with his forces in the Tora Bora region, but admit he could be elsewhere in Afghanistan.
But commanders in the tribal eastern alliance said top terrorists who they believed were among the al-Qaida forces may have escaped toward the nearby border with Pakistan.
Heavy snow fell around the Tora Bora area in Afghanistan’s eastern White Mountains, making escape more difficult for the Arab and foreign Muslim fighters trapped for days in a heavily forested canyon after fleeing al-Qaida caves.
U.S. warplanes provided close air support as alliance fighters — with American special forces moving alongside to call in U.S. airstrikes — advanced up the Milawa valley in an assault launched after a second deadline for the al-Qaida fighters to surrender passed at noon Thursday.
After sundown Thursday, B-52 bombers carpet-bombed the higher mountain ridges near the Pakistani border, creating spectacular orange flashes in the night. An AC-130 gunship resumed attacks for the third night in a row.
If not for the surrender talks over the past two days, “this would have been finished,” Hazrat Ali, security chief for the eastern alliance, said. “Now we will fight them until we annihilate them.”
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon believes bin Laden is still in Afghanistan, though he acknowledged there were reports he had left the country.
He said the United States was getting “scraps of information” about bin Laden from Afghans, Pakistanis and others. “He is in hiding. We are asking everyone to help.”
As for bin Laden’s fighters, Rumsfeld said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that any number of al-Qaida have gone across various borders and do intend to fight another day and we intend to find them and keep looking.”
In part to convince any doubters — particularly in the Middle East — that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, the Pentagon on Thursday released a videotape of the al-Qaida leader explaining the planning of the suicide hijackings.
“We calculated in advance” the number of casualties from the attacks, the tape shows bin Laden telling a visiting Saudi sheik. The Pentagon said the video was found in a house in Jalalabad and bore a label saying it was taped Nov. 9, about a month into the U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan.
In other developments:
— In a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar, 13 injured Arab fighters strapped grenades and explosives to their waists and demanded only a few nurses be allowed into their rooms. They apparently feared the Afghan fighters who took over the city from the Taliban a week ago.
— Britain was trying to put together a multinational force and make sure Afghanistan approves it before formally announcing, possibly Friday, that it will lead a peacekeeping effort.
— In the eastern city of Jalalabad, 200 Pakistani prisoners who fought alongside the Taliban were released Wednesday and were making their way home. The release was made to mark of Islam’s upcoming Eid al-Fitr feast that follows Ramadan.
Ali, of the eastern alliance, said he was not sure if bin Laden was trapped with his men in Tora Bora or even in the area at all.
The Pentagon has said Tora Bora — a network of caves and tunnels in the White Mountains — is the last effective al-Qaida stronghold in Afghanistan.
Ali said surrender offers by the al-Qaida fighters holed up in Tora Bora had been “a trick” to give senior leaders a chance to escape.
He said he thought about 700 al-Qaida fighters, along with at least some of the leaders, remained in the Tora Bora area.
Pakistan has said it has reinforced the border, just a few miles south of the fighting, with helicopters and thousands of soldiers to prevent escape by al-Qaida figures.
“We are monitoring the border round the clock,” said Aslam Khan, a Pakistani soldier in the area.
Fiery explosions echoed down the Milawa valley, mixed with heavy machine gun and tank fire. Before dawn Thursday, U.S. planes dropped at least one 15,000-pound “daisy cutter” — and perhaps as many as three. An Associated Press reporter saw a huge, bright magenta fireball that hung in the air and lighted the sky around 3 a.m.
Eastern alliance fighters on the front lines said at least 60 U.S. special forces troops were with them, calling in airstrikes and advising alliance commanders. There were also reports of British special forces operating in the area.
Within seconds of a U.S. fighter’s precision bombing of a mountain ridge, an Afghan voice came on the alliance’s radio network, saying: “Thank you, thank you, very good, very good.” But later in the day, when a U.S. bomb hit near an alliance position, an Afghan commander speaking in Pashtu cried, “Stop! Stop! Tell the Americans they are hitting near us!”
The Pentagon says U.S. forces in the area are not entering direct combat.
Haji Zahir, who along with Ali and Mohammed Zaman are leading the ground forces against al-Qaida, said his men made significant progress Thursday afternoon.
“We have advanced a lot, we have captured a lot of positions today,” Zahir said. “Today was a difficult day and tomorrow will be, too.”
Zahir said many al-Qaida men may have slipped into Pakistan or into a nearby forest.
“If 10,000 people spread out in that forest, you couldn’t find them,” Zahir said. “It is a very wide area, a very mountainous area with many links to the Pakistan border. It is very difficult to control all the ways to Pakistan, but we have blocked the major ones.”
Hamid Karzai, the 43-year-old hereditary tribal leader, set to take office next week as Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, returned quietly to Kabul, the capital, before dawn Thursday.
He spent a workmanlike first day, shunning the spotlight to meet allies and rivals, cementing links with senior ministers-to-be, some of whom he hardly knows.
Karzai also met with the deputy United Nations envoy, Francesc Vendrell, with whom he will likely work closely as momentum gathers for the early deployment of the peacekeeping force.
Prime Minister Tony Blair still has not announced that Britain, as expected, will lead it. Countries expected to take part besides Britain are France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands. Troops from Bangladesh and Jordan are expected to follow. Argentina this week also offered troops, diplomats said.
The U.N. Security Council must then adopt a resolution authorizing the force. The top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has just been in Kabul, will brief the council on Friday afternoon.
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