- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

An Afghan opposition commander said yesterday that his force could take Osama bin Laden's last stronghold in the mountains near Tora Bora within days as the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan said the al Qaeda fighters are running short of supplies.
"We can wait longer than they can," said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, "and we'll maintain pressure on this pocket of al Qaeda until it's ours."
Gen. Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters in a video press conference that Afghan opposition forces also took their first al Qaeda prisoners yesterday. About 50 foreign fighters will be interrogated and could be turned over to U.S. forces in the region.
Hazrat Ali, security chief for the tribal alliance that is leading the fight against al Qaeda in the Tora Bora region, said Osama bin Laden is believed to be trapped in a cave complex
"I don't know, but I think there is a place inside where Osama is," Mr. Ali told the Associated Press. "We hope to catch Osama."
Gen. Franks said bin Laden's exact location is not known although reports from the region say he is hiding in Tora Bora or has slipped out of the country to Pakistan. "You don't know what you don't know," he said of the search for the accused mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The four-star Army general spoke from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., as U.S. jets carried out intense bombing raids on a band of several hundred al Qaeda fighters now trapped in the mountainous region near the border with Pakistan.
U.S. Marines yesterday took control of the Kandahar airport and are setting up a base there. Marines scoured the airport for mines and booby traps.
U.S. Special Forces teams also joined the eastern alliance tribal forces moving slowly into the White Mountains where fighting was described by Gen. Franks as "a pitched battle" taking place over rough, steep terrain.
Estimates of the remaining al Qaeda force ranged from 300 to as many as 1,000, he said.
Gen. Franks said the last major battle under way near Tora Bora is taking place along two valleys that run north to south from the area around Jalalabad to the Pakistan border.
Pakistani troops are deployed along the border to catch any fleeing fighters and the eastern alliance is moving down from the north, he said, creating a "hammer and anvil" on the al Qaeda forces.
The opposition forces claim to have "contained" the fighters in the area and are blocking any efforts from outside to resupply them.
Gen. Franks said the al Qaeda fighters are running short of ammunition, as well as food and water, although it is not known exactly what kind of supplies are stored in an elaborate network of caves and tunnels.
The general said the U.S. military is preparing to handle captured al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden.
"We certainly do have a plan in place for the capture of bin Laden or the top 20 or top 40 al Qaeda leaders," he said.
The prisoners would be held in camps in Afghanistan or possibly moved to U.S. warships anchored in the Indian Ocean.
In other areas of Afghanistan, Taliban fighters continued to hold out in isolated spots. "We still see pockets of resistance," Gen. Franks said, referring to "residual Taliban elements."
He also cautioned that the war would not be over soon. "We still have a lot left to do."
Gen. Franks said U.S. forces have seized lots of documents from areas abandoned by Taliban and al Qaeda forces. He declined to say whether the documents reveal information about past al Qaeda activities or the disposition of its forces.
The general declined to give casualty figures for the Taliban and al Qaeda but said, "A lot of people have lost their lives in these valleys and in these al Qaeda pockets."
In a related development, Gen. Franks said American Taliban fighter John Walker has been transported to the USS Peleliu from the U.S. Marine base south of Kandahar.
Walker is being treated as a prisoner of war, he said.
Gen. Franks said he expected some al Qaeda leaders to flee in small groups or alone. "We suspect over the course of this fight we probably have killed some of the people on this list [of wanted terrorist]," he said.
U.S. forces continued to search for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was last seen near Kandahar. "Right now we don't have a good lead," he said. "We're simply looking for him and we're going to be looking for him."
U.S. bombers focusing on targets in Tora Bora are using earth-penetrating and satellite- and laser-guided bombs. They have also dropped 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bombs.
Gen. Franks said his battle plan is relying on "strategic patience" by carefully and methodically conducting military operations.
"This is not likely to end tomorrow," he said. "If we rush this, then we would have hurt too many of the wrong people and we would not have been responsive to what [Operation] Enduring Freedom is all about. This is the tough part of the work now to make sure we have all the ones we want."
In Tora Bora, two U.S soldiers were reported to have been "grazed" by machine-gun fire during a battle between eastern alliance and al Qaeda fighters.
An Afghan fighter named Khawri, who goes by a single name, said U.S. forces used what appeared to be laser designators to guide air-dropped bombs on a machine-gun nest on a mountainside near Tora Bora.
"We went up there and there was nothing left. Everything was destroyed," Khawri told the Associated Press. "There was one dead person. The body was in the branches of a tree."
Another opposition official, Atiqullah Racham, a top aide to commander Haji Zahir, said U.S. bombing strikes had prevented the alliance fighters from getting into the caves.
But he said that by today, "we hope to have good news for you: the fall of al Qaeda."
Eastern alliance fighters who had overrun caves yesterday found blank U.S. and European passports, religious books and letters.

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