- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan U.S. bombers pounded the hills and caves of Tora Bora yesterday, trying to soften al Qaeda defenses for a ground assault by Afghan tribesmen. Pakistani forces moved to seal off escape routes on their side of the border.
In the south, rival tribal leaders worked out differences over the administration of Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold, with the former governor returning to his old office. The agreement reduces fears of factional fighting now that the Taliban has gone.
The bombing around this village beneath the spectacular, snow-covered White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan is aimed at rooting out Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters believed holed up around cave hide-outs near the Pakistan border.
A commander of the anti-Taliban forces in Tora Bora said he was certain bin Laden himself is among them.
B-52 bombers made repeated passes over the Tora Bora area throughout the day, and huge plumes of smoke rose from the barren hills and ridges. Hundreds of anti-Taliban fighters watched from several miles away as dust filled mountain valleys.
Their commander, Mohammed Zaman, said bombs alone will not dislodge the al Qaeda fighters. He said the ground assault will be difficult, as the Arabs have had years to build up their defenses and restock their caves with weapons and food. He said bin Laden "has not escaped, and we will do everything possible to make sure he doesn't."
From the other side of the front line, a 27-year-old Tunisian, Abu Abdullah, claimed weeks of U.S. bombing have had little effect, killing only two persons and slightly injuring eight.
Contacted by radio from Pakistan, Mr. Abdullah said 84 Arab fighters mostly from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt were hiding in the mountains. A few had wives and children there, he said. He said the fighters had no links to bin Laden and scoffed at the idea that the world's most wanted man was among them.
"I swear by Allah that Osama is not present here," he said . "But now we have no alternative except to embrace death instead of dishonor."
Just across the border, the Pakistani army won permission from tribal elders for the first time ever to move several thousand troops to the semiautonomous border region to cut off possible escape routes, said Malik Inyat Khan, chief of the Kuki Khel tribe. He said they planned to take their positions today.
U.S. Marines set up roadblocks around Kandahar, searching for wanted leaders, but U.S. officials reported no encounters with hostile groups.
Hamid Karzai, who takes power as Afghanistan's interim leader on Dec. 22, told Fox News on Sunday that he had "no idea" where bin Laden was located but said his men were searching.
"He is a criminal," Mr. Karzai said of bin Laden. "He has killed thousands of our people. He has ruined our lives. He has done horrible things. If we catch him he will be given to international justice."
The whereabouts of the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, are also unknown since the Taliban abandoned Kandahar on Friday.
Mr. Karzai entered Kandahar and met with the feuding factions at the bombed-out former residence of Mullah Omar to work out a power-sharing deal.
Former Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha, who felt shut out of the Taliban surrender deal, said he would return to the post he held until the Taliban kicked him out in 1994. A Karzai-appointed leader, Mullah Naqibullah, would be his assistant, he said. A Karzai spokesman confirmed the agreement.
With the situation resolved in Kandahar, Mr. Karzai planned to go to Kabul, the Afghan capital, a spokesman said.
Elsewhere, a train loaded with 1,000 tons of grain and flour crossed the "Friendship Bridge," the only road connecting Uzbekistan with Afghanistan, after workers reopened the span.
The reopening of the bridge was expected to speed aid to Afghan refugees battling cold, hunger and disease.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's former king hopes to return to his homeland from his exile in Italy on March 21, his grandson said yesterday.
The former monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, is to play the symbolic role of convening a traditional grand council of Afghan tribes six months from now. That council will set up a two-year transitional government and draw up a constitution.
He has lived in Italy since his 1973 ouster.

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