- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Afghan ground forces claimed yesterday to have nearly won the war by routing al Qaeda fighters from their mountain lairs in Eastern Afghanistan, but Osama bin Laden's whereabouts remained unknown.
"This is the last day for al Qaeda in Afghanistan," said Mohammed Zaman, the top military commander for Jalalabad and the Tora Bora area whose cave complexes have been bombed for weeks by U.S. jets as Mr. Zaman's forces advanced on the ground.
Mr. Zaman told reporters in Tora Bora that bin Laden had fled, and that his fighters would complete a cleanup operation to wipe out any remaining al Qaeda fighters.
After capturing the last of a network of cave hideouts in the snow-capped White Mountains around Tora Bora, local forces said they had killed about 200 al Qaeda fighters and captured another 25.
"Tomorrow we will show you the prisoners and their weapons. We think [the fighting] will all be soon over," said Hazrat Ali, another senior commander. Mr. Ali said that bin Laden was not among those captured or found dead.
"A few days before today I had information he was here, but now I don't know where he is," said Mr. Ali.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the hunt for bin Laden would continue until he is caught.
"But let there be no doubt in anyone's mind that the president is determined that however long it takes one day, one week, one month, two years, we will get him. Let's be patient and just not give up," Mr. Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, meanwhile, became the most senior official to visit Afghanistan since the war began, meeting the country's designated leader, Hamid Karzai, at Bagram airport north of Kabul.
He told the U.S. troops in Afghanistan that it was their mission to find and destroy those responsible for the terrorist attacks on the United States.
"That is in fact your assignment," he said.
The World Trade Center "is still burning as we sit here, they're still bringing bodies out. Fortunately, the caves and tunnels at Tora Bora are also burning," he added.
During the visit, Mr. Rumsfeld was cautioned that the fighting in Tora Bora was far from over.
Estimates of the number of fleeing al Qaeda fighters range from several hundred to 2,000. The only possible escape route would take them through forested valleys and snow-covered mountain passes leading toward the Pakistan border about 30 miles away.
The United States has bombed suspected bin Laden and al Qaeda hideouts almost around the clock for the past nine weeks in an attempt to kill or help local fighters capture the man and destroy his terror organization.
Al Qaeda is composed primarily of foreign fighters, especially from Pakistan, the Arab world and Chechnya, who were drawn to Afghanistan by bin Laden's message that God wants Muslims to kill Westerners.
Pakistan has deployed an estimated total of 10,000 soldiers along a 100-mile stretch of border leading west from the Torkham border crossing between Islamabad and Kabul, according to local tribal officials.
The numbers are much higher than those publicly acknowledged by the Pakistani government. In addition, thousands of local police and border forces are on the lookout for fleeing al Qaeda members.
The troop deployment followed an unprecedented agreement between the government of President Pervez Musharraf and tribal leaders to let federal troops into zones that until now have been off limits to Islamabad.
"The tribesmen have realized that if they give these people sanctuary then the U.S. will bomb them, too," said Abdul Lateef Afridi, a former member of parliament from the area who lost his job when Gen. Musharraf took over in a 1999 coup.
Mr. Afridi said the Pakistan army had established tent camps and were using them as bases to patrol all along the border.
In the past two days, Pakistan has detained more than 30 non-Afghan fighters attempting to flee Tora Bora.
The so-called "Arabs," fighters from the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, as well as hundreds of Muslims from Chechnya, pose a special problem for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many, like Saudi-born bin Laden, are fugitives from their nations and have few places left to hide. Pakistani tribal elders said yesterday the fugitives would not be welcome in their territory.
"This is not like the city. Even if someone from Peshawar [Pakistan] came, everyone would know. There is no place to hide," said Sheraz Khan, an elder in the Afridi tribe that dominates the stretch of border facing Tora Bora.
The Tora Bora region was the last major pocket of al Qaeda resistance in Afghanistan. Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war, said on Friday that other holdouts include the Shindand area in western Afghanistan, Helmand province northwest of Kandahar and the Kandahar vicinity itself.
In Kandahar yesterday, where U.S. Marines have taken control of the airport as a base for future operations, three servicemen were injured when one of them stepped on a land mine.
The injuries were not considered life-threatening but one Marine lost a leg.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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