Search is on for bin Laden lieutenant in eastern Afghanistan

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

KHARWAR, Afghanistan -- In the mountains and gorges of eastern Afghanistan, U.S. aircraft are hunting for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters after local Afghan commanders reported sightings of al-Qaida's second in command.

Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri reportedly was traveling on horseback with three senior clerics and 26 al-Qaida officials, all Arabs. U.S. officials, however, say there is no credible evidence al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden or his top aide is among the group.

Al-Zawahri, 50, spiritual adviser and personal physician to bin Laden, was last seen about a week ago near the site of this month's Operation Anaconda battles between U.S. troops and al-Qaida fugitives in neighboring Paktia province, according to Mohammed Momen, an Afghan intelligence officer from Gardez.

From there, Momen and other Afghan authorities believe al-Zawahri made his way to this part of eastern Afghanistan's Logar province, about 55 miles southwest of Kabul. It is a region with a long history of support for the Taliban.

"We are sure, 100 percent, they came in this direction," Momen said as his car lunged and lurched over a rock-strewn road through the Darang Gorge that leads to Kharwar -- a forlorn and parched plain flanked by snow-streaked mountains.

Momen said he had received word that al-Zawahri plans a meeting with his supporters sometime this week in one of three places -- Kharwar, Charkh or Sur Tangi Gorge. All are within 50 miles of each other.

'A weekly occurence'

At the Pentagon, U.S. military officials played down reports that al-Zawahri or bin Laden himself have been sighted. In December, U.S. officials, acting on tips from Afghan allies, said they believed bin Laden was cornered in the Tora Bora cave complex. When the area was overrun, no trace of bin Laden was found.

"It's almost a weekly occurrence that we get a couple of reports," of sightings, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said at a briefing Tuesday.

However, Momen said U.S. special forces officers based in Gardez have been notified of the reports concerning al-Zawahri and expressed interest. Afghans say aerial surveillance of the area appears to have increased.

"They came out with us one day and said to follow these reports closely," Momen said of the special forces. "They also said that they are searching the mountains on the border with Pakistan" for al-Zawahri and other al-Qaida fugitives.

Al-Zawahri is a leading figure in bin Laden's global terror network and is believed to have recruited many other key al-Qaida lieutenants through his organization, Islamic Jihad, the secretive militant group blamed for the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

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