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How bin Laden got away

A day-by-day account of how Osama bin Laden eluded the world's most powerfulmilitary machine.

(Page 5 of 6)



"The border with Pakistan was the key, but no one paid any attention to it," he said, leaning back in his swivel chair with a short list of the Al Qaeda fighters who were later taken prisoner. "And there were plenty of landing areas for helicopters, had the Americans acted decisively. Al Qaeda escaped right out from under their feet."

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The intelligence chief contends that several thousand Pakistani troops who had been placed along the border about Dec. 10 never did their job, nor could they have been expected to, given that the exit routes were not being blocked inside Afghanistan.

The proxy war is launched

Meanwhile, back in Jalalabad, the Afghan warlords enlisted by the US to attack Tora Bora were also cutting deals to help the Al Qaeda fighters escape.

In the shoddy lobby of the Spin Ghar Hotel in downtown Jalalabad on Dec. 3, Haji Hayat Ullah - a member of the Eastern Shura who, according to both Afghan and Pakistani sources had long ties to bin Laden - asked for the "safe passage" for three of his Arab friends.

After a 20-minute discussion with Commander Ali, which was overheard by the Monitor in the empty hotel lobby, a deal was struck for the safe passage of the three Al Qaeda members.

About the same day as the 10-day offensive was launched - on Dec. 5 - nearly three-dozen US special forces, their faces wrapped in black and white bandanas, watched the fighting unfold from behind boulders on mountainsides, their trusted laser target designators in hand. They were "painting" the mouths of caves and bunkers inside the complex. The US bombing became markedly more accurate - almost overnight, according to Afghan civilians and local commanders.

The battle was joined, but anything approaching a "siege" of Tora Bora never materialized. Ghamsharik says today that he offered the US military the use his forces in a "siege of Tora Bora," but that the US opted in favor of his rival, Hazret Ali.

Indeed, Mr. Ali paid a lieutenant named Ilyas Khel to block the main escape routes into Pakistan. Mr. Khel had come to him three weeks earlier from the ranks of Taliban commander Awol Gul.

"I paid him 300,000 Pakistani rupees [$5,000] and gave him a satellite phone to keep us informed," says Mohammed Musa, an Ali deputy, who says Ali had firmly "trusted" Khel.

"Our problem was that the Arabs had paid him more, and so Ilyas Khel just showed the Arabs the way out of the country into Pakistan," Mr. Musa adds.

Afghan fighters from villages on the border confirmed in interviews last week in Jalalabad that they had later been engaged in firefights with Khel's fighters, who they said were "firing cover for escaping Al Qaeda."

As a Russian-made tank commandeered by US-backed Afghans blasted the valleys dividing snow-capped peaks, American B-52s rained down bombs from above, sending giant mushroom clouds that hovered over the pine forests.

The remaining Arab fighters - now reduced to a few hundred from the original 1,500 to 2,000 - continued to hold out, and could be overheard speaking on their radio handsets on Dec. 6. "OK. You can come out shooting," said one Al Qaeda fighter, speaking to another. "The US planes have flown out of the area again."

"The Sheikh [bin Laden] says keep your children in the caves and fight for Allah. Give guns to your wives as necessary to fight against the infidel aggressors."

But talk of surrender came quickly and unexpectedly on Dec. 11, amid heavy gunbattles in the bombed-out pine forests here. Arab fighters used an Afghan translator earlier in the day to convey their wishes: "Our guest brothers want to find safe passage out of your province."

Ghamsharik responded: "Our blood is your blood, your wives our sisters, and your children our children. But under the circumstances, I am compelled to tell you that you must either leave or surrender."

When Ali, whose men had paid Khel to guard the rear nearly two weeks earlier, complained that no deals should be cut, Ghamsharik shot back: "If you want to hold this ridge, send your own men up here. You are down there with the press and the pretty ladies, and I'm stuck up here." Both men chuckled.

On Dec. 13, Al Qaeda-backer Younus Khalis sent his own man into the fray - this time on the US side of the battle.

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