- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan After nine weeks of siege, Afghan tribal leaders claimed victory today over al-Qaida guerrillas at their last stronghold in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden was nowhere to be seen, and U.S. officials said the fighting around Tora Bora was far from finished.

U.S. jets bombed targets today as al-Qaida fighters fled deeper into forests on the snowcapped mountain range. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a brief visit to Afghanistan, told reporters of “a fierce battle'' in the Tora Bora area. U.S. and British soldiers have also been helping the tribal eastern alliance.

With Afghan commanders saying at least 200 al-Qaida fighters had been killed and that 2,000 others were on the run, no one knew if bin Laden was dead, fleeing, holed up deep in one of the eastern region's thousands of caves or if he'd been there at all.

Commanders Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman came down from the rugged cliffsides to declare they commanded all the caves in the Tora Bora area, a boast impossible to verify.

“This is the last day of al-Qaida in Afghanistan,'' Mr. Zaman said of bin Laden's terrorist network of foreign fighters.

But after a five-hour lull in U.S. airstrikes, at least two bombs fell on the area and an AC-130 gunship was hammering nighttime targets with its howitzer, although the action sounded farther away, as if the planes were going after fleeing forces.

“There are people trying to escape, and people trying to run them down,'' Mr. Rumsfeld said.

He said Afghan leaders told him that in addition to the dead, they had captured 11 al-Qaida fighters and others were trying to flee the couple of miles to the border with Pakistan, which has sent helicopter gunships and thousands of troops to seal the frontier. Pakistan said yesterday it arrested 37 Arabs sneaking into the country from Tora Bora.

Mr. Rumsfeld also said he had received Afghan reports that one senior al-Qaida leader had been captured, but he would not identify him.

He spoke in Bagram, north of Kabul, as U.S. Marines hastily finished a prisoner-of-war camp Sunday at their Kandahar airport base in southern Afghanistan to hold al-Qaida captives.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's commander, said the eastern alliance was “making progress, but I think it's accurate to say that it's going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control.''

“It's physically a matter of digging out the al-Qaida from these caves and tunnels,'' Gen. Franks said on ABC's “This Week. “It's a matter of inching our way forward up the sides of these canyons and physically going into each one of these bunkers and caves.''

Neither Mr. Zaman nor Mr. Ali could answer the most pressing question of the long, bloody campaign: Where is bin Laden?

“A few days before I had information that he was here,'' Mr. Ali said. “But now I don't know where he is.''

What was believed to be his fortified cave was the last to be taken today, Mr. Ali said. Inside were six fighters, one of whom was killed. The commander promised to scour the mountains “meter by meter'' to find stragglers. But with so many caves in the area, it could be a long time before anyone knows with certainty that fighters, including bin Laden, are not there.

In southern Afghanistan today, three Marines were wounded by a land mine at Kandahar's airport, where they are moving most of their operations from Camp Rhino in the nearby desert. A spokesman said one was in danger of having his leg amputated.

Also in Kandahar, four of 13 armed Arabs holed up in the city hospital escaped, apparently with the blessing of their guards, said head nurse Ghulam Mohammed Afghan.

Mr. Rumsfeld became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the warring nation since the American-led campaign began. He met the new interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, at Bagram airport to discuss the course of the war and plans for Afghanistan's future.

Mr. Karzai talked with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf by telephone today and said his government would work closely with him, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

Gen. Franks, meanwhile, tempered earlier reports that bin Laden's voice was identified last week in recent short-range radio transmissions.

“We have certainly been receiving an awful lot of transmission traffic. We're not sure'' it was bin Laden, he said.

Relentless U.S. bombing in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan was first reported on Oct. 15, eight days after the U.S.-led military campaign began. Tribal fighters have been attacking al-Qaida forces in the area since.

Smiling eastern alliance forces today chanted in English, “Al-Qaida is finished! Al-Qaida is finished!'' as U.S. planes circled overhead.

The Tora Bora region was the last major pocket of al-Qaida resistance in Afghanistan. Late last week, Gen. Franks said other holdouts included the Shindand area in western Afghanistan and the Helmand province northwest of Kandahar.

Across Afghanistan, civilians and fighters alike poured into mosques for Eid al-Fitr, Islam's most festive holiday, and mullahs led prayers appealing for peace.

Even near Tora Bora, eastern alliance fighters emerged briefly from the mountains, their hair matted with dust, to stack Kalashnikovs outside village mosques and celebrate the feast marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

“I prayed to God to bring peace to our people,'' said eastern alliance commander Haji Qadir, who attended celebrations at a mosque in Jalalabad.

Gunfire of the festive kind filled Kandahar streets women in new clothes, and men in shiny shoes visited relatives with gifts of clothes, money and dried fruit.

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