Tribal fighters, U.S. special forces continue to hunt for Osama bin Laden, his army

Captured al-Qaida paraded before media

Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan -- Heads bowed and hands bound behind their backs, 18 al-Qaida fighters captured in the fall of Tora Bora were paraded in front of reporters Monday as Afghan tribal soldiers and U.S. special forces hunted Osama bin Laden and what's left of his fleeing army.

There was no word on where bin Laden might be following Sunday's capture of the mountain caves where his terrorist network made its last major stand in Afghanistan.

At least 200 foreigners loyal to al-Qaida were killed in battles culminating nine weeks of attacks by American warplanes and eastern alliance ground forces. Hundreds were believed on the run in eastern Afghanistan, and reports varied as to how many had been captured.

Pakistan says it has arrested at least 88 fleeing al-Qaida members in recent days. Bracing for further attempts to breach its border -- just a few miles from the fighting -- Pakistan moved more troops to the frontier to bolster the helicopter gunships and thousands of soldiers charged with cutting off escape routes.

An additional 18 captured al-Qaida, many weeping, were led down the mountainside on mules by Afghan tribal fighters as snow fell.

Earlier, tribal leaders paraded the filthy prisoners before journalists in a village. Some limped. Others had bandaged heads. They said nothing as armed guards pushed them into a dusty yard in a valley where opium poppies once bloomed.

Some had their arms tied behind them with red nylon ropes. One who wasn't restrained tried to hide his face with a bandaged hand. Others stared vacantly. Reporters were barred from asking questions.

About 200 villagers stared. Manoghul, 23, cradled an AK-47. ''When they were fighting us they were very proud men. Now they are weak. They cannot even look at us,'' he said.

It was unclear what would happen to the prisoners. Commanders alternately spoke of handing them over to U.S. authorities or letting Afghanistan's interim government, which takes office Saturday, deal with them. U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan have built a prisoner-of-war facility capable of holding 300 people.

The tribal eastern alliance, helped by American commandos and U.S. airstrikes, said they had routed al-Qaida from the battered country.

But U.S. leaders said victory would not be declared until bin Laden is caught. And for now, no one knows where he is or what he's been doing.

''Anybody's guess,'' Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Monday en route to Brussels, ''Until we catch him -- which we will -- we won't know precisely where he's been.'' Rumsfeld briefly visited Afghan-istan on Sunday.

Bombing by American warplanes could be heard in the Tora Bora region Monday morning, tapering off by afternoon.

Stufflebeem told reporters, ''There are still isolated pockets of al-Qaida fighting in this area, so we're not done yet.'' He estimated between 1,000 to 2,000 al-Qaida had been in the White Mountains at the start of fighting.

Some tribal fighters said U.S. special forces were working with them as they searched the caves and tunnels left by fleeing al-Qaida loyalists. Others complained they received no help.

Haji Zahir, the son of a local governor, said his faction captured 31 people -- 22 Arabs and nine Afghans -- after an exchange of gunfire.

''They did not want to surrender. But finally we were able to disarm them,'' he said, grumbling that there was no assistance from U.S. special forces.

At a news conference held from the back of a pickup in a stony field, Zahir said, ''Whatever is being done is being done by Afghan people. We were not offered any support by any foreigners. It was the duty of every Afghan to pull out all al-Qaida fighters from our lands.''

Several local fighters said women and children were among the al-Qaida dead, adding credence to reports that some foreign fighters had brought their families. Their accounts could not be independently verified.

In other developments:

n In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain is prepared to lead an international peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. Some details remain to be resolved, but among the nations willing to contribute troops were Canada, Australia, Argentina, Jordan and New Zealand. A spokesperson for Blair said the first soldiers could be in Kabul, the Afghan capital, by Dec. 22 when an interim administration is scheduled to take power.

n Marine Cpl. Chris Chandler, who lost his foot after stepping on a land mine at Kandahar's airport Sunday, was flown to a hospital outside Afghanistan. Sgt. Adrian Aranda and Lance Cpl. Nicholas Sovereign suffered minor injuries.

n There was fresh information on another fugitive on the American wanted list: Taliban supreme leader Mullah Moham-med Omar. Haji Gulalai, the intelligence chief for Kandahar's governor, said reports indicated the cleric was holed up with hundreds of fighters in the town of Baghran, northwest of Kandahar.

n David Hicks, a 26-year-old Australian captured while fighting alongside the Taliban, was handed to U.S. forces and flown Monday to an American ship in the region, the Australian government said.

n In Kandahar's Mirwais Hospital, nine armed al-Qaida fighters threatening suicide were moved to a ward with barred windows after four comrades escaped over the weekend, nurse Syed Rahim said.

n In Kabul, the American flag flew over the U.S. Embassy for the first time since 1989. Veteran diplomat James F. Dobbins will run a liaison office until it is upgraded to an embassy again.

Associated Press writers Doug Mellgren and Christopher Torchia in Kandahar, and Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.

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