JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Osama bin Laden has no shortage of hiding places -- from the thickly forested region west of Kandahar to an impregnable fortress built with U.S. aid during the Afghan war against the Soviets.
Hundreds of U.S. Marines began landing Sunday in the Kandahar area, where President Bush said they were chasing those responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States -- for which bin Laden is the prime suspect.
Yet if the United States knows where bin Laden is hiding, no one in the Bush administration is saying so publicly. And in Afghanistan, rumors of his whereabouts abound.
Local militia leaders in eastern Afghanistan suspect bin Laden may be holed up in a mountain base called Tora Bora that veteran Afghan guerrillas describe as an impregnable fortress.
13,000 feet up
Built with U.S. aid during the Soviet occupation, Tora Bora sits about 35 miles south of Jalalabad, atop a 13,000-foot mountain, three hours by foot from the nearest road. Carved 1,150 feet into the mountain are a series of rooms and tunnels that reportedly can house some 1,000 people.
"I am sure he is there, 70 percent sure," Hazrat Ali, a militia leader in charge of security around the eastern city of Jalalabad, said Monday. He believes bin Laden wants to stay near the Pakistani border in case he wants to leave Afghanistan.
However, Tora Bora is about 300 miles northeast of the Kandahar area where the Marines landed, suggesting Washington has its eyes on other possible hiding places more accessible to the Taliban stronghold.
Mullah Mohammed Khaq-zar, a former Taliban intelligence chief, believes bin Laden and his Taliban allies might head for the towering mountains that rise up to the northwest of Kandahar beginning at Argandab.
However, Khaqzar said bin Laden would probably not stay there because the area has been heavily bombed since the start of the air campaign Oct. 7. Instead, he believes bin Laden would push deeper into Islam Dara, a well-fortified, inaccessible area.
American jets have also struck around Islam Dara, tucked into the crevices of the mountain near Khaqrez, some 30 miles northwest of Kandahar. However, Khaqzar said the bombs may not have caused serious damage to mountain caves.
Another possible destination could be Kajakai in neighboring Helmand province, where mountains tower nearly 10,000 feet.