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Afghanistan: Anti-Taliban Troops Launch Offensive On Tora Bora

Prague, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Taliban forces have reportedly launched a three-pronged attack in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in an effort to root out suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and fighters loyal to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Anti-Taliban forces are working their way up mountain trails in small groups as tanks pound the positions of bin Laden's fighters, AP reports today. Agencies say anti-Taliban forces are meeting fierce resistance from fighters loyal to bin Laden.

Commanders believe that more than 1,000 Al-Qaeda fighters are based in the valleys and surrounding ridges in the White Mountains, near the Tora Bora cave complex.

AP says U.S. warplanes, including Air Force B-52 bombers and Navy F-14 and F-18 fighters, have eased their bombardment of the area after carrying out near nonstop bombing raids in recent days.

Other agencies report the bombing raids are continuing.

Hafta Gul, a senior officer in the anti-Taliban militia, said the U.S. planes had temporarily ceased bombing to avoid hitting anti-Taliban fighters on the ground.

The focus of the two-month-old, U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan has turned to caves to the north and east of Jalalabad, where bin Laden and his fighters have set up elaborate underground bases.

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday in Washington the U.S. firmly believes bin Laden is hiding in Tora Bora: "We think we know, in general, where bin Laden and some of his senior leadership are hiding. We think that's in this so-called Tora Bora area, and that's why we're focusing so hard on that area right now."

But it's not known for certain if bin Laden is still in Tora Bora.

News agencies say the suspected terror mastermind was sighted in the region as recently as 7 December. But other reports say bin Laden may have moved to even remoter areas to the north and east. Other reports speculate he may even have slipped over the border to Pakistan.

Bin Laden is suspected of planning the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that leveled the two World Trade Center towers and killed more than 3,000 people.

Hamid Karzai, the designated head of the new Afghan interim government, said yesterday that his new authority will spare no effort in capturing bin Laden and turning him over to the international justice system: "I hope [Osama bin Laden] will be caught as soon as possible, together with his associates, and we will do exactly what justice requires. He is a criminal, he has killed thousands of our people, he's ruined our lives, he cut trees -- the livelihood of our people, he cut orchards, he's done horrible things. If we catch him, he will be given to international justice."

In the south of the country, the Afghan Islamic Press reports that U.S. troops have entered the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The Islamabad-based news agency cites eyewitnesses as saying they saw American soldiers, wrapped in blankets, standing on the roof of the house of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The agency also quotes witnesses as saying they saw a column of around 30 U.S. tanks and armored vehicles, backed by helicopters, moving toward Kandahar.

Kandahar, which served as the base of Taliban rule, fell on 7 December after Karzai and Taliban officials negotiated the city's surrender.

BBC television has aired video of the city filmed yesterday showing the situation as calm but revealing widespread destruction after weeks of U.S. bombing as well as street fighting and looting. Many stores remain closed today.

The whereabouts of Mullah Omar are still unknown. Omar disappeared on 7 December after surrendering Kandahar. He is believed to be in hiding either in Kandahar city or the surrounding province of the same name.

In the capital, Kabul, U.S. marines today occupied the U.S. Embassy, marking a return to the city following an absence of 12 years. Major Vic Harris, an army public affairs officer, said the marines had arrived from Bagram air base to secure the embassy.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.