Tribal fighters declare al-Qaida defeated, but search in Afghan mountain intensifies
TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) — A Soviet-built tank and trucks carrying Afghan fighters crawled along a narrow road Tuesday, as tribal forces pulled out of the battle-scarred ridges of the White Mountains, saying they had defeated Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.
But some Afghan fighters and U.S. special forces remained in the Tora Bora area to scour the hundreds of caves lining its valleys for al-Qaida fighters and traces of bin Laden — whose whereabouts was unknown.
The search will be “tough, dirty, hard work,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Belgium.
The U.S. military says the war has entered a new phase that no longer will measure success in territory taken or bombs that hit targets.
It has become a manhunt, “step by step, cave by cave,” to find Osama bin Laden and his closest allies, with or without Afghan help, Gen. Peter Pace told reporters in Washington.
The head of intelligence in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar said Omar had fled to Baghran, in the south-central mountain foothills, with 300 to 400 fighters. “Every hour, we’re getting reports of where he is,” Haji Gulalai told The Associated Press. But he said U.S. warplanes could not bomb the area until tribal forces were there to direct fire.
Omar has been missing since the Taliban fled Kandahar, their last stronghold in the country, nearly two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Britain said it would send a first team of 200 marines — the vanguard for an international peacekeeping force — to the Afghan capital, Kabul, in time for Saturday’s inauguration of the interim government.
Britain, which will lead the multinational force, is expected to provide about 1,500 of the 3,000-5,000 peacekeepers. The U.N. Security Council still must approve the deployment and some details remain to be worked out.
As part of the search for fugitive leaders, the United States was taking custody of and questioning about 20 of the hundreds of Taliban or al-Qaida prisoners being held by Afghan tribal fighters.
Fifteen prisoners held by the northern alliance were handed over to U.S. Marines on Tuesday at a new American base at Kandahar airport. At the same time, a group of FBI agents arrived to conduct interrogations.
No details were available on the prisoners’ nationalities or whether they belonged to al-Qaida or the Taliban. Two of those who were brought to Kandahar arrived in the back of a Humvee and appeared to have trouble walking.
Three other al-Qaida or Taliban members — thought to be “fairly important people” — are being held on the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said at the Pentagon.
An American and an Australian found fighting alongside the Taliban were also being detained on the Peleliu. Pakistan has said it captured 88 al-Qaida fighters fleeing Tora Bora in recent days, and some may have been questioned by U.S. officials.
So far captured fighters have given little reliable information on bin Laden’s location, Wolfowitz said.
Some reports had placed bin Laden in Tora Bora, where U.S. warplanes and tribal fighters assaulted pro-bin Laden fighters — mostly Arabs and other non-Afghan Muslims — for weeks until the al-Qaida forces fled in the past few days.
But the bin Laden reports were never confirmed. One alliance commander, Mohammed Aman Khiari, said Tuesday that bin Laden was likely not there any more, if he ever had been at all.
“If Osama is here, they would be fighting us,” he said, referring to al-Qaida. “Now maybe he has gone somewhere else, or maybe he is dead.”
Wolfowitz echoed that thought. “I think it’s possible he could be dead in the bottom of one of (the caves at Tora Bora),” he said.
As the rusting green alliance tank moved down the valley from Tora Bora, villagers ran from mud-brick homes, waving and smiling in celebration of the expulsion of al-Qaida.
“We are happy again,” said a villager who identified himself only as Barailyes.
“We are going home, al-Qaida is finished!” shouted Mohammed Kwali, one of more than a dozen tribal fighters on top of the tank.
A unit commander, Haji Atiqullah, said alliance forces were in control of Tora Bora and were looking for any fleeing al-Qaida fighters. Only a few hundred of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 al-Qaida forces were reported to have been killed or captured, though it was not known if the estimates were overblown.
Two eastern alliance officials said hundreds of al-Qaida members and their families — possibly including some top commanders — escaped the U.S. onslaught at Tora Bora and reached Pakistan with the help of senior Afghan tribal leaders.
Many senior Taliban officials also have slipped into Pakistan, where they were being protected by Pakistani authorities, a top government official in southern Afghanistan charged.
Pakistan called both allegations nonsense and said it had deployed more troops on its border near Tora Bora and patrolled with helicopter gunships to block escape routes. But the frontier is laced with goat paths, used for decades to smuggle goods and infiltrating fighters.
In other developments:
— An Army soldier lost a foot in a land mine explosion Tuesday during de-mining efforts at Bagram Airport near Kabul, Defense Department spokesman Richard McGraw said. A Marine suffered the same injury Sunday during clearing operations at Kandahar airport.
— Hundreds of Afghan refugees poured back from Pakistan. At the Torkham border crossing, families lugged bags of food, clothes and holiday presents.
— Yemeni special forces trained with U.S. help battled armed tribesmen in raids in Yemen aimed at capturing five suspected al-Qaida members, security officials said. The Abida tribe in remote parts of Yemen’s Marib province had refused to hand over the men, and when special forces entered the mountainous area Tuesday armed tribesmen opened fire, sources said. Four tribesmen and eight soldiers were reported killed. The five wanted men were not found.
Correspondents Doug Mellgren in Kandahar and Riaz Khan in Torkham, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
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