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Afghanistan: U.S., Opposition Fighters Seek Al-Qaeda Surrender In Tora Bora

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Ethnic Pashtun tribal forces were negotiating today the surrender of fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden, trapped in their Tora Bora mountain refuge in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, U.S. bombers briefly resumed strikes on the area to force bin Laden loyalists to lay down their weapons. Also today, Hamid Karzai, the head of the interim administration due to take office later this month, is expected to arrive in the Afghan capital Kabul for talks expected to include Northern Alliance leaders and UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Prague, 12 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. air forces today resumed strikes on eastern Afghanistan in a bid to force Al-Qaeda fighters trapped in the mountain caves of Tora Bora to abide by a surrender deadline set by tribal forces surrounding the area.

A B-52 strategic bomber dropped two bombs on the White Mountain range, where the caves are located, around 0900 local time (0430 GMT), within an hour of the deadline's expiration. There was no immediate report on possible casualties, but the bombing was so heavy that it could be heard in the city of Jalalabad, some 40 kilometers to the north.

Ethnic Pashtun commanders controlling the area close to the Pakistani border said some Al-Qaeda fighters had contacted them by radio yesterday, pleading for a chance to give up. In return, tribal forces agreed to delay a planned assault on Tora Bora to allow the mostly foreign mercenaries to safely lay down their weapons.

Mohammad Lal, a senior local Pashtun commander, told AP that the besieged fighters -- believed to number up to 1,000 -- were expected to come down from the mountain caves in small groups of between 20 and 40 men to be driven to a nearby village pending further orders. However, other tribal warlords said they were skeptical that all Al-Qaeda fighters would surrender peacefully.

The Al-Qaeda fighters are reportedly demanding to be handed over to United Nations officials in the presence of diplomatic representatives of their respective countries.

Taliban militiamen and Al-Qaeda fighters had asked to be handed over to the UN when they surrendered in the northeastern city of Kondoz last month, but their demand was rejected. More than 400 of them were later killed after staging an uprising in a prison near Maraz-i-Sharif.

Talking to reporters in the Pakistani capital Islamabad today, Kenton Keith, the spokesman for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, confirmed that surrender talks were taking place in Tora Bora. The spokesman said there was no question of anything short of an unconditional capitulation. Keith said, "Al-Qaeda is in no position to decide its surrender conditions."

Al-Qaeda defenses in Tora Bora started crumbling earlier this week (10 December) after eight days of heavy air strikes and artillery fire.

Reports that Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden -- the main suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington -- may still be holed up in Tora Bora have not yet been confirmed. The U.S.-based NBC News television network today quoted unidentified Pentagon officials as saying that most top Taliban leaders -- with the exception of supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is thought to be hiding in Afghanistan -- have escaped to Pakistan. Pakistani Interior Secretary Tanseem Noorani denied the report as "groundless," saying all Taliban fighters who had tried to enter the country had been either pushed back or taken into custody.

Pakistani officials claim that regular troops have been ordered to assist paramilitary forces monitoring the 2,400-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan and that reinforcements have been dispatched to the area opposite Tora Bora to prevent Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping out of the country.

Speaking yesterday in Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that Pakistani authorities had sealed off the border with Afghanistan.

"There are Pakistani forces on the Pakistan border that [Pakistani] President [Pervez Musharraf] has assigned up there to attempt to close the border so that Al-Qaeda and Taliban do not escape out of Afghanistan into Pakistan."

But Rumsfeld described the Afghan-Pakistani border as "porous," appearing to suggest that bin Laden and some of his men could make their way to Pakistan.

Rumsfeld also said Washington wants to interrogate any Islamic militant who surrenders and who might provide information that could help dismantle Al-Qaeda's international network.

Yesterday, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, on six charges of conspiring with bin Laden. U.S. officials believe Moussaoui may have been preparing to join one of the four hijacking teams that carried out the September attacks. The indictment is the first directly related to the events of 11 September.

Speaking yesterday to reporters, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Moussaoui, who claims he is innocent, faces a possible death sentence.

"Our indictment offers 30 pages of chilling allegations of Al-Qaeda's campaign of terror. It lists six counts against Moussaoui, four of which authorize the maximum penalty, upon conviction, of death."

In an interview with the private RMC-Info radio station, French Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu said today France recognizes evidence supporting the indictment against Moussaoui. But Lebranchu said that no French citizen can face the death penalty and that she wants to consult with the U.S. administration over the case.

How Paris could legally block a possible death sentence remains unclear. France abolished the death penalty 20 years ago and refuses to extradite French nationals to countries where it could be imposed.

France today announced that it is ready to contribute troops to a proposed foreign peacekeeping force authorized by the UN Security Council that Britain has said it would be willing to lead. Italy, Germany, and Turkey have all indicated they would be willing to contribute to a multinational security force.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking in Stockholm before parliament, today called for the quick entry of a multinational force. Annan said a speedy entry of the force could facilitate the distribution of needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived yesterday in Kabul to negotiate the size of the force with Northern Alliance leaders and to pave the way for the installation of a new interim administration.

Under the terms of the UN-brokered power-sharing agreement reached last week in Bonn, this interim administration will be headed by ethnic Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai and will take office on 22 December. It will be responsible for preparing a national assembly that will in turn establish a transitional government to lead the country into general elections. The Northern Alliance will hold the defense, interior, and foreign affairs portfolios in the interim administration.

Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim reportedly told Brahimi yesterday that a force of just 1,000 foreign soldiers should be sufficient to guarantee the security of the new administration.

Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni today said Northern Alliance leaders want the mandate of the proposed foreign force to be limited in time.

"We welcome the deployment of international peacekeeping forces, but we hope that these forces will not remain in Afghanistan for too long, because the [Afghan] police security forces are able to guard [Kabul] and the provincial centers themselves."

Alliance leaders claim that they have only 4,000 security forces left in Kabul and that they have withdrawn all their military forces from the city in compliance with the Bonn agreement. Yet, reporters present in the Afghan capital said today there were still clear signs of a military presence there.

Karzai is expected today in Kabul for talks with Fahim and other Northern Alliance leaders. The head of the future interim administration is also due to meet with Brahimi before the UN envoy leaves for Pakistan.