Whereabouts of bin Laden unknown
The Associated Press
TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Tribal fighters and U.
Monday, December 17, 2001
TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Tribal fighters and U.S. special forces chased al-Qaida guerrillas through the mountains of eastern Afghanistan on Monday after conquering their complex of caves and tunnels. Some tearful al-Qaida fighters surrendered, pleading with their captors not to turn them over to the Americans.
More than 200 foreigners from al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, were killed in battles culminating nine weeks of attacks by American warplanes in the air and eastern alliance forces on the ground. Hundreds more were believed to be on the run, and there was no word on the whereabouts of bin Laden after some reports had placed him in the area.
There was fresh information on another fugitive on the American wanted list: Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Haji Gulalai, the intelligence chief for Kandahar’s governor, said reports indicated the one-eyed cleric was holed up with hundreds of fighters in the town of Baghran, northwest of the southern city of Kandahar.
Around Tora Bora, airstrikes were less intense Monday than in the previous weeks, but bombs still exploded deep in the forests on the snowcapped mountain range where al-Qaida fighters were believed to be fleeing. Cannon fire from helicopter gunships gave an orange tint to low-lying clouds over the mountains.
The eastern alliance said misdirected U.S. bombs killed three of its fighters overnight, repeating charges leveled earlier in the conflict that the Americans weren’t taking enough care to avoid hitting their allies.
Some alliance fighters said U.S. special forces were working with them as they searched the caves and tunnels left behind by fleeing al-Qaida troops.
Auzubillah, a commander of the tribal eastern alliance, said his forces clashed early Monday with retreating al-Qaida fighters, killing two and capturing five. He reported finding ammunition and food stores in abandoned caves.
Several local fighters said women and children were among the al-Qaida dead, adding credence to reports that some foreign fighters had brought along their families. Their accounts could not be independently verified.
Captured al-Qaida members were led down the mountainside on mules amid intermittent snow. Many were crying.
One faction paraded 18 men – nine Arabs and nine Afghans – through the streets of a village. Several appeared to be slightly injured, and one man’s head was bandaged. Some had their hands tied behind their backs with red nylon ropes. They were not allowed to speak to reporters.
About 200 residents watched silently, standing outside a village mosque. Manoghul, 23, cradled a Kalashnikov rifle. ”When they were fighting us they were very proud men,” he said. ”Now they are weak. They cannot even look at us.”
Thirteen captured fighters – four seriously wounded – were held in the mountains by men under commander Haji Zahir.
In footage taken by Associated Press Television News, the captors said the group included two senior al-Qaida commanders, whose names weren’t given. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also said Sunday during a visit to Afghanistan that one senior al-Qaida leader reportedly had been captured, but he did not identify him.
The men pleaded with their captors not to turn them over to U.S. forces. Khudaifa, a 17-year-old fighter from Kuwait, said he came with his father to fight with al-Qaida, but that an American bomb killed his father and wounded him.
”I haven’t had a drink for two days. If you don’t give me water I will die,” Khudaifa begged.
The prisoners said they knew of 64 more al-Qaida hiding in the forest. They said they had seen bin Laden in the area a month ago, but weren’t sure where he was now.
It was unclear what would happen to the captives. Commanders spoke alternately of handing them over to U.S. authorities or of letting Afghanistan’s interim government, which will take office Saturday, deal with them. U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan have built a prisoner-of-war facility capable of holding 300 people.
The area around Tora Bora was the last major pocket of al-Qaida resistance in Afghanistan. The eastern alliance – a collection of fighters under tribal leaders in Afghanistan’s east – said Sunday that it had captured the foreign fighters’ defensive positions.
But Gen. Tommy Franks, the war’s commander, said Sunday on ABC’s ”This Week”: ”It’s going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control.”
In southern Afghanistan, a Marine who stepped on a land mine at Kandahar’s airport was flown to a hospital outside Afghanistan. Marines spokesman Capt. David Romley said Cpl. Chris Chandler lost his foot in the accident. Two other Marines – Sgt. Adrian Aranda and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Sovereign – suffered minor injuries to their hands and arms.
At the airport, the Marines’ new base, Marines set up tents and equipment under an early morning rainbow. The rain overnight was unusual for the parched region. C-130 transport planes arrived with 13 loads of reinforcements.
David Hicks, a 26-year-old Australian captured while fighting with the Taliban, was handed over to U.S. forces and flown Monday to an American ship in the region, the Australian government said.
Nearby, in Kandahar’s Mirwais Hospital, nine armed al-Qaida fighters threatening suicide were moved to a ward with barred windows after four comrades escaped over the weekend, nurse Syed Rahim said.
In Kabul, the capital, the American flag flew over the U.S. Embassy for the first time since 1989. Veteran diplomat James F. Dobbins will run a liaison office until it is upgraded to an embassy again.
The last U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by Islamic militants in 1979. He was killed by cross fire in a botched rescue attempt by Afghan security agents. The embassy functioned without an ambassador until the last of its staff left in early 1989.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem also flew to Kabul and reopened his country’s embassy.
Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, was flying Monday to Rome, where he planned to meet with Afghanistan’s exiled king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, according to Shah’s son, Prince Mirwais Zaher.
The prince, speaking in Rome at a meal to break the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, said the holiday this year ”was even more special because I’ll be going back to Afghanistan soon. We’re all going back to Afghanistan and that is a reason to celebrate.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press writers Doug Mellgren in Kandahar and Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.
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