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Afghanistan: Battle For Tora Bora Cools, Hunt For Bin Laden, Mullah Omar Heats Up

  • Bruce Pannier

The battle around Afghanistan's mountainous eastern region of Tora Bora seems to be winding down. But the whereabouts of suspected 11 September mastermind Osama bin Laden remain a mystery. Local Afghan and U.S. special forces continue hunting for bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda fighters in the Tora Bora area. Meanwhile, one anti-Taliban field commander claims the U.S. military was tricked into bombing the wrong targets as part of an old rivalry between anti-Taliban commanders.

Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Local anti-Taliban troops, along with United States and British special forces, appeared today to be in the mopping-up stages of the battle around Tora Bora, where the last significant concentration of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are located in Afghanistan. However, anti-Taliban forces seemed no closer to finding suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has long been believed to be in the Tora Bora area.

U.S. warplanes and helicopters continued to pound the Tora Bora area overnight, despite claims today by some anti-Taliban commanders in the area that the last defensive positions of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountainous region had been overrun. Anti-Taliban commander Haji Zahir said, "There is no fighting at the moment, and as I told you before, the important posts are all in the hands of mujahedin now. But our efforts will continue on these mountains until we are certain [that it is clear]."

Anti-Taliban forces paraded 19 captives from Tora Bora in a village near the scene of the battle. Other anti-Taliban forces searched cave-to-cave in the Tora Bora complex, looking for fighters who may still be hidden. But despite the euphoria of anti-Taliban soldiers at Tora Bora, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- visiting the Bagram air base north of Kabul yesterday -- said fighting is not over at Tora Bora and that many of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters were trying to escape the area.

"There is, at the present time, not a fierce battle taking place [at Tora Bora]. There are people who are attempting to escape and are being run down," Rumsfeld said.

One of those who may be on the run from anti-Taliban forces at Tora Bora is bin Laden. Several sources based in Pakistan have reported in the last two weeks that bin Laden fled Tora Bora and is now outside Afghanistan.

Speaking yesterday to journalists in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said even if bin Laden has fled Tora Bora, the world's most-wanted terrorist cannot evade justice for long: "Sure, we'd like to have seen [bin Laden] in irons [captive] today, but he will be in irons in due course, one way or the other."

In Kandahar to the south, the city's new director of intelligence, Haji Gullalai, said Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is located in caves somewhere in the central Helmand Province near the village of Baghran. Gullalai said troops in Kandahar were preparing to go to the area and search for Omar, who fled Kandahar just before the city was surrendered to Pashtun tribal leaders earlier in December.

Hamid Karzai, the head of the interim Afghan government formed at the Bonn conference in early December, is expected in Rome later today to meet with former Afghan King Zahir Shah. Karzai and the former king are meeting to discuss Afghanistan's future and how to restore stability to the nation after more than two decades of war.

In the latest sign that rebuilding peace and trust in Afghanistan will not be easy, Northern Alliance commander General Mohammad Daud yesterday told RFE/RL that a rival anti-Taliban commander, Said Jafar Nadiri, intentionally gave U.S. forces the coordinates of Daud's forces for a bombing strike.

"As a result of misleading information provided by [Nadiri], [U.S. warplanes] bombed our positions," Daud said. "Among the forces of the Islamic Government of Afghanistan [the government of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani], 30 people were killed or wounded and 10 tanks were destroyed."

Daud's claims could not be independently confirmed. But the dispute is just another example of how difficult it will be to get the various Afghan factions to cooperate as the interim government moves into power on 22 December. Several Afghan factions have already expressed their displeasure at the choice of members for the interim government. Those government officials are all expected to be in Kabul on 22 December to be sworn into office, after which they must move to bring the country under control, with the aim of holding national elections within two years.