Afghans claim victory; fighting goes on

Monday, December 17, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan -- After nine weeks of siege, Afghan tribal leaders claimed victory Sunday over al-Qaida guerrillas at their last stronghold in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden was nowhere to be seen, and U.S. officials said the fighting around Tora Bora was far from finished.

U.S. jets bombed targets Sunday as al-Qaida fighters fled deeper into forests on the snowcapped mountain range. American and British soldiers have also been helping the tribal eastern alliance.

With Afghan commanders saying at least 200 al-Qaida fighters had been killed and that 2,000 others were on the run, no one knew if bin Laden was dead, fleeing, holed up deep in one of the eastern region's thousands of caves -- or if he'd been there at all.

Commanders Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman came down from the rugged cliffsides to declare they commanded all the caves in the Tora Bora area, a claim impossible to verify.

"This is the last day of al-Qaida in Afghanistan," Zaman said of bin Laden's terrorist network of foreign fighters.

But after a five-hour lull in U.S. airstrikes, at least two bombs fell on the area and an AC-130 gunship was hammering nighttime targets with its howitzer, although the action sounded farther away, as if the planes were going after fleeing forces.

11 captured

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Afghan leaders told him that in addition to the dead, they had captured 11 al-Qaida fighters and others were trying to flee the couple of miles to the border with Pakistan, which has sent helicopter gunships and thousands of troops to seal the frontier. Pakistan said Saturday it arrested 37 Arabs sneaking into the country from Tora Bora.

Rumsfeld also said he had received Afghan reports that one senior al-Qaida leader had been captured, but he would not identify him.

He spoke in Bagram, north of Kabul, as U.S. Marines hastily finished a prisoner-of-war camp Sunday at their Kandahar airport base in southern Afghanistan to hold al-Qaida captives.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's commander, said the alliance of tribal fighters operating in eastern Afghanistan was "making progress, but I think it's accurate to say that it's going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control."

"It's physically a matter of digging out the al-Qaida from these caves and tunnels," Franks said on ABC's "This Week. "It's a matter of inching our way forward up the sides of these canyons and physically going into each one of these bunkers and caves."

Neither Zaman nor Ali could answer the most pressing question of the long, bloody campaign: Where is bin Laden?

"A few days before I had information that he was here," Ali said. "But now I don't know where he is."

What was believed to be his fortified cave was the last to be taken Sunday, Ali said. Inside were six fighters, one of whom was killed. The commander promised to scour the mountains "meter by meter" to find stragglers. But with so many caves in the area, it could be a long time before anyone knows with certainty that fighters, including bin Laden, are not there.

In southern Afghanistan on Sunday, three Marines were wounded by a land mine at Kandahar's airport.

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