Search for al-Qaida goes on near Pakistan

Monday, June 3, 2002

TORKHAM, Pakistan -- U.S. and coalition forces began searching early Sunday for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border, officials said.

Helicopter gunships and B-52s patrolled overhead as a combined force combed the al-Aqsa military base on the main road from Jalalabad to the Pakistani border before moving closer to Torkham, the Pakistani border post.

The al-Aqsa military base is the former stronghold of Muslim hard-liner Abdur Rasool Sayyaf and is said to have been set up with funds provided by Osama bin Laden.

Sayyaf, a former deputy prime minister of the northern alliance, has criticized the U.N.-installed interim government in Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun, Sayyaf was interior minister in the government of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban.

Sayyaf's troops were considered among the most brutal in the bitter factional fighting that marked Rabbani's last term in power.

U.S. Maj. Greg Tallman said at Bagram air base north of Kabul that officials could not comment on the operation.

Helicopters monitored routes long used by smugglers to prevent al-Qaida and Taliban from slipping across the border into Pakistan or returning to Afghanistan to regroup or stage attacks. In some areas, troops parachuted down to conduct ground searches.

An Afghan commander, one of 200 Afghans in the search party, told The Associated Press the operation likely will last for a couple of days and spread to at least two more military bases likely to have been used by the Taliban.

They are located within a 1 1/4-mile radius of each other, the commander said on condition of anonymity.

Nestled deep in the mountains, the Maroo and Mozatal bases proved to be virtually impregnable during a 1988 raid by invading Soviet soldiers. The mujahedeen fighters are said to have retaliated so furiously that the battle ended 54 days later with the Soviets retreating.

The bases -- which have huge caves capable of holding large numbers of personnel, ammunition and even mosques -- are considered possible hide-outs for Taliban and al-Qaida, the commander said.

After the fall of Tora Bora in December, U.S. officials believe bin Laden may have taken refuge in one of the cave complexes set up by three close allies, all since killed in separate incidents, the Afghan commander said.

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