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Afghanistan: Search For Fighters On The Ground Takes Precedence In Military Campaign

U.S. officials have stressed for weeks that although the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces are defeated and on the run, they still represent a threat. Proof of that is evident as Al-Qaeda fighters continue to elude -- and sometimes escape -- capture as they flee the eastern mountainous Tora Bora region for Pakistan. Taliban fighters were also reported to have seized a small town between the Pakistani border and former Taliban stronghold Kandahar. Meanwhile, there were hopeful signs of a return to normalcy in Afghanistan, as UN-sponsored bakeries in Kabul reopened to help feed the capital's many hungry residents as winter sets in.

Prague, 20 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Even as Taliban fighters fled Afghanistan's big cities last month, officials in the United States government warned that the campaign against terrorism was far from over. U.S. warplanes have scaled back their bombing runs, but the ground search for fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters has intensified in recent days as the Tora Bora cave complex was destroyed by air and artillery attacks.

Now loose and roaming the countryside, many of the fighters still pose a serious security threat. The latest example of this came yesterday, when a group of some 40 Al-Qaeda prisoners who had been captured in Pakistan after fleeing Tora Bora escaped after seizing the weapons of their Pakistani guards. AP reported that six guards and seven fighters were killed in the incident. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry said today that authorities have recaptured all but five of the Al-Qaeda prisoners.

Commanders in the anti-Taliban opposition near Tora Bora declared victory two days ago, but it is unclear how many of the estimated 2,000 fighters remaining in the area's terrorist network have been captured or killed. Opposition fighters admit to having captured only some 200. Many of the caves in the Tora Bora complex were destroyed, making it difficult to compile an accurate death count. It is also unclear which, if any, caves remain intact and how many Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters might remain inside. Suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden may also be sheltered inside one of the caves.

The flight of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters from Tora Bora is a source of increasing concern not only for U.S. officials anxious to capture bin Laden but for Pakistan as well. The Pakistani government has reportedly placed 7,000 soldiers along the 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Kenton Keith, spokesman for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, welcomed Pakistan's efforts at a news conference in Islamabad today.

"The Pakistanis have already put impressive assets into that area [the border with Afghanistan], and as we have seen, they've been able to round up a good number of people who have tried to cross that border."

Keith added that the coalition had yet to lend support to the Pakistani efforts but did not rule out the possibility.

"So far it looks as though the Pakistani government is handling this very well on its own. If they are in need of further assistance they know that the coalition is there to provide."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on 19 December that he was satisfied with Pakistan's efforts to close its borders to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

"The Pakistani army is doing a good job along the border of Afghanistan. They have captured a very large number, hundreds."

A small band of Taliban fighters were reported yesterday to have captured the southern village of Takhtapul, located between the Pakistani border and the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, which fell to anti-Taliban forces earlier this month. The Taliban was reportedly continuing to hold the city today, serving notice that groups of armed militia members are still roaming the countryside.

Meanwhile in Kabul, people prepared for the 22 December inauguration of the country's new interim government. Security in Kabul has improved significantly since the Taliban withdrew from the capital in early November, and there are increasing signs in the city of a return to normalcy.

The city's UN bakeries resumed work today, after being closed by the Taliban in October. Staffed entirely by Afghan women, many of them war-widows, the UN bakeries -- together with other aid organizations -- hope to provide free bread to up to 100,000 residents of the capital.