- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

U.S. officials say they have no credible evidence that Osama bin Laden slipped across the border into Pakistan, and at least one al Qaeda captive says the fugitive remains in the Tora Bora region of northeastern Afghanistan.
With al Qaeda's guerrillas killed, captured or on the run, the hunt for bin Laden now becomes the Bush administration's main military objective in Afghanistan.
The elusive terrorist did not turn up Sunday when anti-Taliban fighters stormed the last major cave complex in Tora Bora and the remnants of a once-1,000-strong al Qaeda army fled south toward Pakistan.
On the ground, American special-operations forces have begun the tedious and dangerous search of numerous caves of Tora Bora vacated by Arab and Pakistani fighters of al Qaeda. Some may still harbor terrorists who will fight to the death. Others may be booby-trapped.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the military coalition fighting in Afghanistan, said Sunday that soldiers may dig up bombed cave entrances to inspect the dead for al Qaeda, including its leader, bin Laden.
"Maybe he still is here; maybe he was killed, or maybe he's left," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
In addition to the cave search, the military continues an air-ground operation to find bin Laden. Delta Force commandos are on the ground, and an array of spy satellites and drones and eavesdropping technology is employed to track him from the air.
CIA paramilitary officers are now interrogating al Qaeda prisoners, who are giving conflicting accounts. Some say bin Laden left Tora Bora more than a week ago. Others say he left over the weekend or may still be there.
After weeks of saying they believed bin Laden was moving among Tora Bora's caves, U.S. officials were not as confident yesterday about his general location. But officials said he could still be hiding in an "indeterminable number" of small caves dotting the region's landscape or that he may have been entombed by days of relentless American bombing.
Added a U.S. official, "There are reports he has gone to Pakistan, but not credible enough for you to believe them. He may still be in Tora Bora."
Adm. Stufflebeem told reporters the chatter of battlefield radios has all but stopped in Tora Bora, depriving the United States of a key intelligence source on bin Laden's whereabouts.
"A few days ago we believed he was in that area. Now we're not sure," Adm. Stufflebeem, the Joint Chiefs' deputy director of operations, told reporters.
Early last week, before U.S. bombing and anti-Taliban forces routed al Qaeda soldiers from caves and tunnels, American commandos picked up bin Laden's voice on a short-range radio giving orders.
"There has been less intercept of communications, which means it's quieter in that region than it has been in the past," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "So it has gone quiet. and as [Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld] has said, the more time an individual has while not being observed, there's obviously more options available to that individual. I'm not sure how close we ever really have been. We have narrowed it down to an area. Indicators were there, and now indicators are not there."
One senior administration official said, based on the intelligence he has seen, including the radio voice last week, that he is convinced bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area until a few days ago and may well be there now.
Press reports already have placed the mastermind of the September 11 attacks in Pakistan or headed to Somalia or Indonesia, determined to be reunited with Taliban commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mullah Omar is believed to be hiding in cave complexes north of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
A verdict on bin Laden's stay in Tora Bora, a favorite base during the mujahideen's war against occupying Soviet forces, may not be known for weeks or months.
"There are an indeterminable number of caves to inspect at this point from what I can tell," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "Now becomes the more difficult and slower process of confirming who is still left to fight, or is this cave now empty, and was there evidence that somebody was recently there."
Pakistan last week sent 10,000 troops to its border with the Tora Bora region to block al Qaeda from retreating.
President Bush yesterday continued to express confidence his troops will find binLaden.
"We get all kinds of reports that he's in a cave, that he's not in a cave; that he's escaped, that he hasn't escaped, and there's all kinds of speculation," the president said. "But when the dust clears, we'll find out where he is and he'll be brought to justice.
"The Pakistanis will help us and they are helping us look for not only Osama bin Laden but for all al Qaeda murderers and killers. Osama bin Laden is going to be brought to justice. He's on the run. He thinks he can hide, but he can't."

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