- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

Senior U.S. officials are convinced Osama bin Laden is now confined to northeast Afghanistan's Tora Bora region and that anti-Taliban tribes and American commandos are closing in on the world's most wanted man.
The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that U.S. special-operations forces on the ground are now actively searching for bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders in the mountainous area south of Jalalabad.
"We are working to determine where these bad guys are and then to bring strikes on them," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon.
A senior U.S. official said there are credible intelligence reports that bin Laden is moving among the caves of Tora Bora, at times with his al Qaeda co-founder, Egyptian-born Ayman al Zawahri.
Asked the chances of locating bin Laden soon, the official said, "This is a very rugged area, very steep mountain area. Lots and lots of caves. Lots of places to hide. It is not a slam dunk."
Day by day, however, the Pentagon is denying bin Laden some of those retreats by bombing cave entrances in Tora Bora in Afghanistan's White Mountains region east of Kabul.
To add to bin Laden's problem, an Afghan tribal army of about 3,000 unleashed their first attacks yesterday on al Qaeda warriors believed to be bin Laden's last line of defense.
Backed by the U.S. air strikes on hide-outs pinpointed by American commandos on the ground, opposition leaders claimed to have forced about 1,000 Arab and Chechen al Qaeda warriors higher into the mountains.
Other U.S. officials say they have numerous intelligence reports saying bin Laden is in Tora Bora. The CIA, which is authorized by President Bush to kill the master terrorist, is flying spy drones over the region, which is also being watched by reconnaissance satellites. CIA field officers and commandos also have collected eyewitness accounts of bin Laden sightings.
As reporters watched yesterday, Afghan fighters fired repeated tank rounds at the caves of Tora Bora. "We are trying our best to capture [al Qaeda fighters] alive," tribal commander Alim Shah told the Associated Press. "They are surrounded by us, but they are not surrendering." Mr. Shah said the enemy was armed with mortars, grenade launchers and rifles.
The Afghans have a chance to collect a $25 million reward for killing or capturing bin Laden and his lieutenants.
Adm. Stufflebeem gave the Pentagon's first detailed description of the ground operation around Tora Bora. He said special-operations forces were advising the anti-al Qaeda tribes and conducting reconnaissance missions to find targets for Navy and Air Force warplanes.
He said Afghans have actually searched several caves, but so far have not seen bin Laden.
"I have seen reports that local opposition groups from local villages in this area who know the terrain have gone into some of the caves to confirm whether or not somebody, you know, was or might be there," said the admiral, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There are now two major war fronts remaining: the siege of the last Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and the last stand by al Qaeda leaders in Tora Bora.
The strategy by Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander for the Afghanistan campaign, appears for the moment to be the same in Tora Bora as in the rest of the country: let local anti-Taliban tribes do most of the ground fighting, with the aid of American commandos and air strikes.
Adm. Stufflebeem said, "Their mission, as has been other special operating forces, [is to] make contact with opposition groups, determine what their needs are, what their requests might be and to develop intelligence and do reconnaissance."
He said the covert warriors "are trying to determine locations of al Qaeda, and specifically al Qaeda leadership and remaining Taliban that might be in the area. The reports from that region is that many of these forces may have or have taken up refuge in caves and tunnels."
Local tribesmen reported this week that al Zawahri was seriously wounded in a bombing raid. The senior U.S. official yesterday discounted those reports, but said there is credible information that his wife and daughters were killed by U.S. raids. Over the past month, the Pentagon believes the strikes have killed scores of mid- and high-level al Qaeda members.

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