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Two top Al Qaeda leaders spotted

Local Afghan commander says bin Laden and his No. 2 have been in the Khost area.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002


Afghan military officials working with US forces in Khost say that the top two leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, have both been seen in the area over the past eight days.

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This is the second sighting of Mr. bin Laden's No. 2 in this area in the past month. Local forces may have their own motives for reporting a bin Laden sighting. But, if true, it would be the first evidence of bin Laden's continued presence in Afghanistan since he was seen at Tora Bora in November.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition" that bin Laden is "still in the area of Afghanistan, maybe across the border in Pakistan someplace, but I think he's still out in the general area."

Local intelligence reports also show that Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives are regrouping in the mountains south and northeast of the city of Khost, helped and supplied in part by Afghan sympathizers who can blend into the city and bring information and supplies to the fugitives.

The Monitor interviewed one of three informers who reported to Kamal Khan Zadran, the military commander and deputy governor of Khost Province, that Mr. Zawahiri was seen four days ago, riding on horseback with a group of about 25 men toward the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan. Zadran says that he also received a report that bin Laden was seen in the area of Khost about eight days ago, and that he may be hiding in a mountainous village called Mir Chapar, southeast of Khost city close to the Pakistani border.

Zadran says that another group of villagers told him that they'd seen a group of about 80 men, four on horses, the rest on foot traveling southeast of Khost. It was clear from their dress that they were Arabs, and they insisted that one of them was bin Laden.

The latest sightings could only be corroborated through interviews facilitated with Mr. Zadran's assistance, although competing warlords in the area confirm that the strength of Al Qaeda and forces sympathetic to them in these largely Pashtun provinces of southeastern Afghanistan is steadily growing.

The reports of Zawahiri's presence in the area are bolstered by several interviews conducted independently by the Monitor last week with Afghan villagers east of Shah-e Kot – the mountainous battleground of the US-led Operation Anaconda. Villagers, who were paid to carve out new caves for Al Qaeda, say that they saw Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor, orchestrating the excavations.

It is difficult to confirm the validity of information and evidence presented by Mr. Zadran. He is the leader of 600 special troops who are called "campaign forces" and were trained by the US to focus on the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. But he – as well as the approximately 3,000 troops under his brother Badsha Khan, the region's most powerful warlord – are still in a standoff with other warlords - who are competing for favor with the US.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan says the bin Laden sighting "doesn't sound far-fetched." But he adds: "It's been our policy not to get into dissecting various reports about where he is or isn't. When we have solid information on his whereabouts, we'll take action to bring him to justice."

Still, Zadran and his deputy commanders say there is a worrying concentration of Al Qaeda forces on two mountains in the region: Pashu Ghar, meaning "Cats Mountain," which lies about 20 kilometers northeast of this city, and Mister Bill Ghar, or Mr. Bill's Mountain, which is about 25 kilometers to the south.

Inside the family's heavily guarded military headquarters, Zadran presents evidence that Al Qaeda has also been operating inside the city. He displays a fake identification letter from a bogus Islamic charity, which makes its carrier, a man from the United Arab Emirates, look like his sole job is to collect money for Muslims in Bosnia. Zadran says the laminated letter, which bears a photo of a man in a Gulf Arab headdress and says its holder is Fahed Mohd [Mohammed] Abdullah, was found in the city, at the same place as a chemical stash, which he says he showed to US forces yesterday.

Zadran says that the letter and the containers of bombmaking chemicals are small indications that Al Qaeda operatives are plugged into this area, operating in the mountains while their Afghan allies slip in and out of the city unnoticed, bringing mostly Arab, Pakistani, and Chechen fugitives supplies and information.

"Unfortunately, all of the most famous Al Qaeda from all over Afghanistan have gathered in my area," says Zadran. "The problem is the Afghan Taliban. Without the Afghan Al Qaeda, the foreign Al Qaeda would not survive. They come to the cities to buy food and bring it out to them."