Hunt for bin Laden and Mulla Omar continues in mountains

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Associated Press WriterKANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Tribal Afghan fighters withdrew artillery and heavy weapons Tuesday from the mountain stronghold of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in eastern Afghanistan, signaling the worst of the fighting was over.

U.S. special forces were remaining in the area of Tora Bora -- though they may also leave soon -- a leading tribal commander, Hazrat Ali, said.

The American and Afghan forces have been going cave to cave in the mountainous region, looking for stragglers and sifting through piles of abandoned documents, passports and other evidence left behind when al-Qaida fighters fled.

They were also searching for bin Laden, who some had said was present during at least part of the battle, when hundreds of bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters withstood an assault from American bombers and the tribal eastern alliance for days until their hasty retreat.

Ali on Tuesday declared the operation completed. He was quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press agency as saying there was no information that more al-Qaida fighters remained in the caves.

As his forces withdrew, a tank crawled along a dusty, narrow valley road, followed by troops in pickup trucks. Villagers came out and waved.

"Al-Qaida is finished. I am now going to go home," one soldier said.

Mohammed Aman Khiari, another commander, said he doubted bin Laden was still in the area -- if he had been there at all.

"If Osama is here, they would be fighting us, but in this case I don't think Osama is in Tora Bora because they are not fighting. Now maybe he has gone somewhere else, or maybe he is dead," Khiari told reporters.

At a U.S. base in southern Afghanistan, Marines raised an American flag bearing scrawled messages of vengeance and anguish, which flew briefly at the World Trade Center ruins in New York.

It was a gift from the New York Police Department, which lost 23 officers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and will be returned to them.

"They took 23 great cops. Pay back time," read one unsigned note.

The dead officers' names, and those of 17 sailors lost in last year's suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, were handwritten on the flag's white stars.

Two U.S. C-130 aircraft reported they came under missile fire from hostile ground forces overnight after leaving Kandahar. But the Central Command in Tampa, Florida, later said the crew had seen muzzle flashes that "were part of an end of Ramadan celebration."

Meanwhile, the war against al-Qaida was extended beyond Afghanistan's borders. In a remote part of central Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemeni special forces fired tanks and artillery Tuesday, trying to capture five suspected bin Laden supporters, according to tribal elders and sources familiar with the operation.

Security officials in Marib province, 100 miles east of the capital, San'a, confirmed that special forces were pursuing several men wanted by the government. Other sources in the region said the assault came after members of the Abida tribe refused to hand over at least five men suspected of belonging to al-Qaida. The sources said at least one of the men was a non-Yemeni Arab who previously was in Afghanistan.

Pakistan deployed reinforcements on its border with Afghanistan and patrolled with helicopter gunships in an effort to block escape routes from Tora Bora. But the frontier is laced with goat paths that have served for decades as routes for smuggling goods and infiltrating fighters.

A few hundred al-Qaida fighters of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 were reported to have been killed or captured during the fighting at Tora Bora. There was no word on whether the rest had fled or initial estimates were wrong.

Prisoners reported seeing bin Laden himself in the area, as recently as Saturday according to CNN. But information from al-Qaida loyalists was being treated with skepticism.

With the ouster of the Taliban and fighting tapering off near Afghan cities, hundreds of refugees poured back from Pakistan, which houses an estimated 3 million Afghans. At the Torkham border crossing, families lugged bags of food, clothes and holiday presents through the gate.

In southern Afghanistan, a tribal intelligence officer said Taliban leader Mohammed Omar had fled to Baghran, in the foothills of the south-central mountains, with 300 to 400 fighters, but there was no immediate plan to pursue him.

"Every hour, we're getting reports of where he is," from contacts in the area, said Haji Gulalai, intelligence chief for Kandahar's governor, Gul Agha.

"America knows where he is. But we need to be in the same area to help guide any bombing," Gulalai told The Associated Press. "Without our help, America will end up bombing civilian areas. We haven't yet given the green light to the Americans to start bombing."

Baghran is a gateway to the unguarded northern frontier to Turkmenistan, a notorious smugglers' track toward the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where bin Laden's support remains strong.

Gulalai gave no indication that bin Laden was in central Afghanistan, but some experts believe Baghran would be a logical refuge for the prime suspect behind the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

Pakistan says it has arrested 88 al-Qaida members in recent days. Some were believed to have been questioned by U.S. officials.

Three al-Qaida captives were transferred to the warship USS Peleliu, along with an American and an Australian who fought for the Taliban.

"There are still any number of al-Qaida loose in that country," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday. "That is why we are there, that is why we are chasing."

Trying to block another possible escape route, Canadian frigates were patrolling the Arabian Sea. Canadian Sea King helicopters were flying over and inspecting ships and small boats off the coast of Pakistan, said Commodore Drew Robertson.

Meanwhile, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said his country could deploy the first troops in the Afghan capital, Kabul, for an international security force by Saturday, when the interim government under Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai is due to assume office.

Hoon said the bulk of the British contingent would follow. Britain will lead the force and contribute up to 1,500 troops, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament on Monday, assuming the U.N. Security Council approves the deployment.

The European Union was expected to contribute up to 4,000 troops. Blair said Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Turkey had also indicated they were willing to participate.

The U.N.-brokered agreement signed by four Afghan factions Dec. 5 established an interim administration to govern for six months and called for a multinational security force in Kabul initially and possibly elsewhere later on.

--------Associated Press correspondents Chris Tomlinson, Geoff Spencer, Doug Mellgren and Riaz Khan contributed to this report.

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