Al Qaeda fighters try to regroup

But some locals, fearing more US bomb attacks, refuse to help.

Local officials and villagers say that senior Al Qaeda and Taliban officials are meeting in the strategic village of Zerok – which divides eastern Afghanistan from southern Afghanistan – to put the final touches on their spring and summer guerrilla campaigns.

Zerok was the base from which the first raids against the Soviet Army were launched in 1979. A prominent local Afghan hero, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who led those raids over two decades ago, is now organizing the new attacks, according to Afghan officials.

But the work of launching new strikes against US-led coalition forces will likely to meet with more resistance than they expect. For one thing, US special forces troops – backed by heavy air power – are hunting down the hundreds of Arab fighters who probably escaped the fighting at Shah-e Kot last month. For another, there is a growing local resistance to helping them.

Here in the village of Neka, the target of US B-52 airstrikes last Wednesday, some of Al Qaeda's elite warriors are being told they are not welcome to hide in the mountain caves above their vegetable and poppy fields.

"It is dangerous for us," says Haji Shindee gul Zadran, who led a village delegation into the mountains over the weekend to speak with the fighters. "The US planes are hovering in the skies, they will drop more bombs on this area as soon as they find these fighters.

"I told them in clear words to leave our valley; if they don't, we will fight them. They begged to be allowed to stay for a week, which is impossible for us to accept," Mr. Zadran says.

The men who visited the Arab fighters say there are many Chechens in the group, and that they are well-armed and in good spirits. They say the bands of fighters are moving in small units in Afghanistan's Paktika Province.

Western military analysts predict that they will continue to move in similar formation to avoid being surrounded by a Western foe with superior firepower.

"What we are seeing from Al Qaeda is a new and improved strategy based upon lessons learned in earlier confrontations with coalition forces, particularly in Tora Bora," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "They won't be caught in large numbers again anytime soon."

There are several reports about Al Qaeda regrouping and planning attacks.

"I have confirmed reports that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are regrouping in the southern and northern parts of Khost Province, and are preparing for an attack on my forces as well as US forces," says Kamal Khan Zadran, the deputy governor and military commander of Khost. He leads some 600 Afghan fighters who have been trained by US special forces.

"The Al Qaeda has concentrated its activities around here; Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was seen here two weeks ago; and there are confirmed reports that he is still in the area near the border with Pakistan," Mr. Khan says.

Moreover, Afghan military officials and villagers say that much of Al Qaeda's planning for its guerrilla struggle is going on over the border, inside Pakistan.

Sixty people, including 25 Arabs and four Afghans, were arrested by US and Pakistani special legal units last week, the first reported joint US-Pakistani attacks on suspected Al Qaeda holdouts.

Pakistani police officials said one of those arrested bears a strong resemblance to Abu Zubaydah, Mr. bin Laden's senior field commander, who was believed to be trying to reorganize Al Qaeda.

Here in Neka, Al Qaeda's "hearts and minds" campaign continues unabated. A public relations document being widely distributed in Paktika Province reads: "Dear Muslim Brethren and the brave people of Afghanistan. Once again Almighty Allah has chosen you to test your faith and bravery. And this is the case as it was 20 years ago (when you faced the Russians) in the same situation you were tested by God and by the help of Allah you passed the test. Now it is again the time to stand and be united, give hands to those who are Muslims and who are patriotic and are sons of this land. We must fight together against all foreign puppets, foreign troops, and their agents."

The document signed "The holy warriors of Islam" goes on to say that "Anyone interested in serving Islam should contact one another and we will soon be touch with you."

But it doesn't appear that all locals are of one mind when it comes to fighting and exposing Al Qaeda members.

Mohammed Ali Jalali, the governor of Paktika Province, was traveling in a convoy of five pickups with 50 armed men in Neka. The slender, turbaned, long-bearded leader has refused to permit a governor appointed from Kabul to enter his province.

"There are no Al Qaeda fighters hiding in this province," he told the Monitor. "They have all been killed, or they have escaped to Pakistan or Iran."

The governor, who warned the Monitor earlier this year that US forces would become targets if they overstayed their welcome or did not rebuild the country, expressed bitterness about last week's bombing in Neka. "These areas must not be bombed, and the civilians must not be killed," he snapped.

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