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Hunt for bin Laden intensifies

Anti-Taliban forces seek terror suspect in east, battle toward Kandahar in south

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2001

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Anti-Taliban troops hunting Osama bin Laden said they clashed Tuesday with al-Qaida fighters near their hideouts in the towering mountains along the Pakistan border.

Hundreds of fighters piled into trucks and headed to the the White Mountains south of Jalalabad for the battle. Provincial security chief Hazrat Ali said he was assembling a force of about 3,000 more men to join the hunt for bin Laden.

''This fight has just begun,'' Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington.

Ali said a patrol of about a dozen men clashed briefly with a group of al-Qaida fighters, who abandoned a tank and scurried to higher ground. There were no casualties, Ali said.

Mohammed Zaman, defense chief here in Nangarhar province, estimated as many as 1,200 al-Qaida fighters are in the rugged mountains, fleeing to higher altitudes as they abandon the Tora Bora cave complex which has been the target of days of intensive U.S. bombing. Ali said the al-Qaida forces have split into groups as small as 10 men.

A U.S. soldier was wounded Tuesday during the fighting around Kandahar, the Taliban militia's southern stronghold, defense officials in Washington said.

The soldier was shot in the upper chest under the collarbone, but his injuries were not life-threatening, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The soldier was working with one of the anti-Taliban groups surrounding Kandahar.

In other developments:

n In Koenigswinter, Germany, Afghan factions negotiating a post-Taliban government agreed to form a 29-member council to run the country and begin work on the difficult task of determining who will hold the major posts.

n The U.N. High Commission-er for Refugees said some 200,000 people have fled Afghanistan since the airstrikes began on Oct. 7. Ruud Lubbers said he had feared much worse and credited careful targeting of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

n At a women's summit in Belgium, leaders from Afghani-stan and around the world pledged to cooperate to make sure women have a say in any new Afghan administration.

Zaman, the Nangarhar defense chief, claimed an airstrike late Monday killed bin Laden's finance chief, known variously as Ali Mahmoud or Sheik Saiid, and injured bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. officials were skeptical of the claim.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would not discuss whether American ground troops were actively involved in the hunt for al-Qaida in the Jalalabad area. But he said the Americans ''have been actively encouraging Afghan elements to seek out'' al-Qaida leaders.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Afghan conflict, has confirmed that the search for bin Laden, sought in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, has focused on the mountains south of Jalalabad and around Kandahar.

Marine reconnaissance units out of a U.S. base outside Kandahar have begun probing deep in the desert, moving in off-road vehicles and Humvees.

Capt. David Romley, a spokesman for the Marines' Task Force 58 at the base, did not specify the teams' mission, saying only that they were ''looking for threats. ... Any threat is going to be a target.''

The more than 1,000 Marines at the base, set up at an airfield just over a week ago, have not gotten involved in fighting as anti-Taliban tribesman advance from three directions on Kandahar, the last city under Taliban control.

A coalition official, speaking in Pakistan on condition of anonymity, said the Marines were ''obviously not a big enough force to take Kandahar,'' but would join efforts to prevent Taliban escaping.

The Taliban have vowed to defend the city, where their movement was organized nearly a decade ago.

Tribesmen loyal to former Kandahar governor Gul Agha fought their way onto the airport compound a few miles south of the city Tuesday but were pushed back two miles by about 500 al-Qaida fighters, according to Abdul Jabbar, a tribal spokesman in Pakistan.

Jabbar said U.S. special forces were calling in airstrikes in support of Agha's fighters. The Taliban admitted the U.S. bombing was taking its toll.

If not for the airstrikes, ''people like Gul Agha wouldn't be a problem for us,'' said Mullah Qasim, a Taliban commander south of Kandahar. ''We could push him back not in days, but hours.''

Another tribal force under Hamid Karzai -- the leading candidate to head Afghanistan's interim government -- is pushing toward Kandahar from the north and met its first resistance Tuesday, according to a senior U.S. official.

The official, speaking in Pakistan on condition of anonymity, said Karzai's men battled Taliban defenders at a bridge 10 miles north of Kandahar. It was unclear if the Taliban were still holding the bridge.



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