Captives make escape attempt in Pakistan, 7 killed

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Associated Press WriterPESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Dozens of fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden who were arrested as they crossed the border from Afghanistan rose up against Pakistani guards, seized weapons and tried to escape. Four al-Qaida fighters and three police were killed, Pakistani officials said.

Pakistani tribal forces and army helicopter gunships pursued the fugitives, capturing at least 13 and surrounding the others in the mountains of northern Pakistan, officials said.

The fighters had been detained after fleeing Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, said a senior official in the Pakistan Interior Ministry, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes drove al-Qaida followers from their mountain base in Tora Bora in recent days, sending many fleeing across the nearby border into Pakistan.

In Tora Bora, the search continued for remaining al-Qaida members or clues to the whereabouts of bin Laden. U.S. helicopters ran night missions through the mountain valleys, while Afghan fighters brought more prisoners and documents from a sweep of snow-laden cave hide-outs.

The tribal eastern alliance, which led the assault on Tora Bora, rebuked two of its leaders for allegedly conniving to allow hundreds of al-Qaida members -- including some top commanders -- to flee into Pakistan, an alliance official said.

Pakistani journalists in Parachinar, near where the revolt took place, said the rebelling prisoners were among 156 al-Qaida members arrested in small groups Tuesday as they fled Tora Bora.

The prisoners were being transferred to a larger facility when a group of them screamed "Allahu Akbar!" -- Arabic for "God is great" -- and seized their captors' weapons, said a senior official in the Pakistan Interior Ministry, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. He also said they were fleeing Tora Bora.

Pakistan government spokesman Rashid Quereshi said seven people were killed. But a local journalist in Parachinar, Afzal Khan, said six security guards and four prisoners died in the fighting. The Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistani news agency, also said 10 people were killed.

After the firefight, at least 42 prisoners made off in four vans, Khan said, and tribal security officials and soldiers went after them, catching 13, including an injured man named Adil. The other 29 were surrounded, Khan said. The Interior Ministry official said tribal fighters and army helicopter gunships were attacking them.

Pakistan has poured helicopters and thousands of soldiers into the tribal areas along the border and set up 300 checkpoints to cut off escape routes from the Tora Bora area. Pakistan earlier said it had arrested at least 108 fighters fleeing Tora Bora, including at least 60 Arabs and other non-Afghans.

Near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, Afghan forces closed the road toward the Pakistan border, claiming there had been fighting between tribal gunmen. But the provincial intelligence chief, Haji Gulalai, denied the report. "Everything is under our control," he told The Associated Press.

International forces were preparing to take positions in Kabul in time for the inauguration Saturday of a six-month interim government. Military advisers from 17 countries that have offered to contribute peacekeepers were meeting in London to nail down details.

The U.N. Security Council was poised to approve the force, possibly by Thursday, after key council members agreed the troops would be authorized to use military force if necessary. A vanguard of 200 British soldiers could move from Bagram airport to Kabul, at the head of a force that could grow to number 3,000 to 5,000.

The appointed Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, said bin Laden and Mohammed Omar, the Islamic cleric who led the brutal five-year Taliban regime, would not be welcome in the new Afghanistan.

"There's no way we can allow them to stay. They've killed our people, they have destroyed our land. We will finish them to the end," Karzai said in Rome after receiving the blessing of the 87-year-old former Afghan King Mohammad Zaher Shah.

In Tora Bora, the whereabouts of bin Laden remained a mystery, as the capture of more of his followers brought new rumors.

An Afghan alliance commander said a handful of non-Afghan fighters were captured overnight without resistance, and more stragglers were expected to surrender as the weather turns colder and the snow deepens.

Afta Gul, a commander of the eastern tribal forces, said only a few of his men remained in the White Mountains, which were hammered during nine weeks of bombing by U.S. warplanes in an effort to kill or flush out an estimated 1,000 al-Qaida members who had taken refuge there.

Some captives "are telling us stories about Osama giving a speech 14 days ago and then leaving, but these men are not very credible," Gul said. "I have heard that Osama has shaved his beard and gone to Pakistan, but no one can say for sure."

Hulking black U.S. helicopters took off repeatedly after dark Tuesday and before dawn Wednesday, flying without lights up the valley leading to the warren of caves. The special forces troops assigned to comb the area refused to speak to reporters.

B-52 bombers and EP3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft droned overhead, but no ordnance was dropped.

Afghan fighters returned to their base with piles of maps and Arabic-language documents from caves they searched Tuesday, including a topographical map marking mortar positions and their field of fire, and a training manual on aiming tank fire.

Hundreds of al-Qaida members -- including some top commanders -- were allowed to flee to Pakistan with the connivance of senior Afghan tribal leaders, two eastern alliance officials said.

The eastern alliance's governing council, or shura, met in Jalalabad on Friday to discuss the reported escape of al-Qaida officials and rebuked two senior tribal leaders who some shura members accused of helping the fugitives to flee, according to a top official who attended the meeting. The official asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Pakistan dismissed allegations that the al-Qaida fugitives were given protection by Pakistan authorities.

At a U.S. Marine base at Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, FBI agents were questioning 15 al-Qaida and Taliban captives.

They were seeking information about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, an attack on the Navy warship USS Cole in Yemen in which 17 sailors died, and other possible plots against American targets, said a Marine spokesman, Capt. David Romley.

Five more captives were being interrogated on board the USS Peleliu, including an American and an Australian who fought with the Taliban. The other three were either Taliban or al-Qaida.

One was believed to be Abdul Aziz, a Saudi Arabian official of the Wafa humanitarian organization, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. The group's assets have been frozen by the Bush administration for alleged terrorist ties.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Associated Press correspondents Chris Tomlinson in Tora Bora, Christopher Torchia in Kandahar and Doug Mellgren with the U.S. Marines contributed to this report.

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