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Afghanistan: Search Continues For Bin Laden

Tora Bora, Afghanistan; 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. warplanes bombed the eastern Afghan mountains today, driving back fighters loyal to terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. A commander for the Eastern Alliance, Hazrat Ali, told the AP news agency that his troops have surrounded a large number of Al-Qaeda fighters on a mountain ridge. Ali said his forces have captured several more caves at Tora Bora and are searching for Osama bin Laden, the man Washington accuses of masterminding the 11 September attacks on the U.S. that killed more than 3,000 people.

The Pakistani-based Afghan Islamic Press quotes a "source" as saying bin Laden had left Tora Bora and his whereabouts are unknown. U.S. officials have said publicly that they cannot be certain of bin Laden's whereabouts.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he is pleased with the progress of the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan, saying American and allied forces have liberated cities that once were ruled by oppressive leaders. He called that one joyous aspect of the war.

Bush also said he decided to release a videotape apparently showing bin Laden discussing the 11 September terrorist attacks because it represents what he calls "a devastating declaration of guilt." The U.S. president said it was important for the world to see bin Laden claiming responsibility for the acts of terror in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

"We are a heck of a lot closer [to catching Osama bin Laden] today than we were 60 days ago and...he thinks he can run and he thinks he can hide, but he is not going to be able to, so we will get him," Bush said.

The most recent bombing has heightened concerns over civilians in the area. In Islamabad, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said it is worried about the toll on civilians, saying about 1,000 families have fled the mountains in eastern Afghanistan since the U.S. bombing campaign began.

The Uzbek government and UN officials reached an agreement today aimed at speeding up and simplifying transit for humanitarian aid across Uzbekistan's tightly controlled border with Afghanistan. The AP news agency says the agreement was signed in Tashkent by Foreign Minister Abdulaliz Kamilov and UN chief representative in Uzbekistan, Richard Conroy, following weeks of negotiations.

Aid agencies and western governments have urged Uzbekistan to open its 130-kilometer border with Afghanistan for aid shipments to northern Afghanistan. Uzbekistan closed the border in 1997 because of fighting on the other side and has been reluctant to open it since.

Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai, the designated head of the new interim government in Afghanistan, today visited the grave of slain opposition leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Karzai made the trip from Kabul to the northern Panjshir Valley accompanied by top officials in his new administration, including Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and Interior Minister Younous Qanooni.

Karzai told reporters that he had traveled to Massoud's grave to "honour one of our people."

Massoud was the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. He was killed in early September by two suicide bombers posing as journalists at an opposition base in Northern Afghanistan.

Karzai is a tribal leader of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The Northern Alliance will be a driving force in the interim Afghan government.