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Tora Bora falls, but no bin Laden

US-backed Afghans yesterday said they seized the last Al Qaeda posts in Tora Bora, but there's no sign of its leader.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2001


The site of the world's biggest stakeout certainly has all the appearances of a siege. Heavily armed Afghans race up mountain valleys with anti-aircraft guns in tow.

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A US Special Forces team, sometimes hiding behind tinted pickup truck windows, directs the operations of the Afghan fighters and target US bombing runs. Together, they have hammered Al Qaeda forces and cleared two major mountain valleys near the Tora Bora cave complex.

But yesterday, after tribal fighters said they captured the last of the Al Qaeda positions, killing more than 200 fighters and capturing 25, there was still no sign of the world's most wanted terrorist - Osama bin Laden. And there were far fewer fighters both captured and killed than were originally thought present.

Could this be called the siege of Tora Bora, or was it something more akin to a sieve? Was bin Laden here, did he die in the bombing, or did he flee days ago?

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in the region yesterday. From the Bagram Airbase, near Kabul, he told troops and reporters that he didn't think the fighting near Tora Bora was over.

"There are people trying to escape, but that gets harder as night falls. The question is, does that mean it's almost over in that area, and I doubt it," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

But near Tora Bora, Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, the eastern alliance defense chief, yesterday proclaimed victory. "This is the last day of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Our men have the situation under control."

The elusive bin Laden

Mr. Ghamsharik said he had no information on the whereabouts of Mr. bin Laden. The Tora Bora region was the last major pocket of Al Qaeda resistance in the country. And a cave where alliance commanders had thought bin Laden might be hiding was the last Al Qaeda holdout.

"There were only six people [inside]," said another alliance commander, Hazrat Ali. "One was killed by our forces, and the others were captured. A few days before today, I had information [bin Laden] was here, but now I don't know where he is."

Ghamsharik said several hundred Al Qaeda members routed from their caves may be headed toward the border with Pakistan.

By all accounts, about two-thirds of the original 1,500 to 2,000 of Arabs, Afghans, and Chechens may have fled. Yesterday, Afghan military leaders estimated the number of Al Qaeda fighters remaining inside the two valleys that make up the Tora Bora terror base at 300 to 500.

On Saturday, some 30 Yemenis were caught trying to escape over the mountains into Pakistan's Parachinar area - on the same route that a Saudi Al Qaeda operative alleges that bin Laden took earlier.

The arrests of the Yemenis were the first reported captures on the Pakistani side of the White Mountains in the wake of the attack on Tora Bora. Western-backed Afghan fighters have captured, by their own estimates, about 70 Al Qaeda fighters, most of them fellow Afghans.

In addition to the original number of Al Qaeda fighters, hundreds of Al Qaeda family members have escaped the siege of Tora Bora in the past three weeks. Most of those leaving have tapped into an "underground railway" of sympathetic Afghan families at the base of Tora Bora, whose men had long been on bin Laden's payroll.

Al Qaeda sources said that this same smuggling route, which winds over mule trails both north and south of the famed Khyber Pass, also has been used by injured fighters and some nonmilitary personnel. At least one deal to transport Arabs out of the White Mountain redoubt was overheard two weeks ago by this writer, as it was being made in the lobby of the Spin Ghar Hotel in Jalalabad between a known Al Qaeda sympathizer and one of the top two warlords in town.

Though Mr. Rumsfeld has said that the two dozen or so US Special Forces are helping to block exit routes, that number of US military personnel can only be considered a token of the real figure needed to cut off all the mountain passes surrounding the mountain enclave. The number of possible passes is in the dozens, if not the hundreds.