U.S. aircraft continued bombing the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan today, targeting Al-Qaeda fighters and possibly their leader, suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, in what could become the final battle in the American-led war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies say a videotape of bin Laden is dramatic proof that the Al-Qaeda leader was behind the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fierce fighting is reported today in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. fighter jets and bombers today stepped up raids on the mountains that separate the Tora Bora and Milawa valleys, where several hundred loyalists of Osama bin Laden -- and perhaps bin Laden himself -- are believed to be hiding in caves and tunnels.
American B-52 bombers hit a rugged ridge identified as a potential escape route for fleeing Al-Qaeda troops.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that more U.S. special forces have been sent to eastern Afghanistan to hunt for Al-Qaeda fighters. Rumsfeld also said U.S. troops are now doing more than simply acting as advisers to Afghan forces, raising speculation that they might be taking on a greater combat role.
Rumsfeld said the U.S. is not sure where bin Laden is hiding, saying that while the Tora Bora area is a likely location, he might also be elsewhere in the country.
"We think he is in Afghanistan. We are chasing him. He is hiding. He does not want us to know where he is. We are asking everyone we can to help."
Rumsfeld denied the U.S. military is trying to kill all Al-Qaeda leaders and troops in Afghanistan, a sentiment echoed by U.S. Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff:
"We hope we come out of [Tora Bora] with, of course, some intelligence information. If that means taking some people alive, then that would be very good."
But Rumsfeld warned that any surrender by Al-Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora must be unconditional. He told a news briefing that -- as he put it -- "this is not a drill where we're making deals."
Anti-Taliban tribesmen -- backed by U.S. special forces -- are reporting to be slowly advancing on Al-Qaeda positions in the Tora Bora region today. A frontline commander for the Eastern Alliance, Haji Zahir, said today that his troops have surrounded a large number of Al-Qaeda fighters on a mountain ridge and that his troops have captured several new caves at Tora Bora.
He says there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda troops are considering a surrender. He said: "Two days ago, they could have surrendered, but they didn't, and they are fighting still. When they lay down their weapons, we'll say they have surrendered."
Surrender talks fell apart on 12 December, and anti-Taliban fighters announced a new deadline the next day, which passed with no sign of gunmen emerging from the hills.
Pakistan's military has posted hundreds of troops along its border with Afghanistan to stop fleeing Al-Qaeda members, but it admits the rugged and snowy terrain make the border naturally porous. A Pentagon official says the U.S. is also watching the region around the clock to try to detect anyone escaping.
Meanwhile, hundreds of heavily armed U.S. Marines swept into Kandahar airport in the former heart of the southern powerbase of the Taliban today to secure the airfield. Initial reports say the marines did not encounter any resistance. The marines cleared debris and searched for booby traps and landmines that might have been left behind by fleeing pro-Taliban fighters.
Marine Lieutenant Don Faul told reporters: "There are active minefields all around. Our biggest priority now is making sure that the airfield is safe and operational."
The airport is expected to become a major arrival point for humanitarian aid, aid that will be desperately needed as the bitter Afghan winter sets in.
Much of the world is talking about a videotape of bin Laden released yesterday by the White House, described by U.S. officials as the "smoking gun" that proves bin Laden was the mastermind behind the September attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people. U.S. officials say the videotape was found in a house in Jalalabad in late November but is believed to have been filmed earlier in the month in Kandahar.
The tape shows bin Laden calmly discussing what damage he believed the hijacked planes would do to the World Trade Center, and how the end result -- the total collapse of both towers -- was more than he had hoped for.
Washington's allies have been quick to call the tape the final proof of bin Laden's guilt, but many in the Arab world are dismissing the footage as a propaganda fake. However, the United Arab Emirates says the videotape leaves "no room for doubt" about bin Laden's role in the September attacks. In a statement, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said the videotape "displays the cruel and inhumane face of a murderous criminal who has no respect for the sanctity of human life or the principles of his faith."