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.

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.

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.

Abu Jaffar, a stout, long-bearded man, recounted his escape from Tora Bora last week. Relieved because he thought he would soon be free, he sat with his Egyptian wife beside a small stove at the base of the valley in Upper Pachir, an Afghan village just a few miles from where US Special Forces were reported by the Pentagon to have surrounded bin Laden's own cave.

Abu Jaffar's account

Before leaving Upper Pachir that night to reach sanctuary in Pakistan, Mr. Jaffar gave an account that suggested American intelligence both outside and inside Tora Bora was inaccurate.

The Saudi, who had arrived in Jalalabad about six months earlier with a $3 million contribution to the Al Qaeda cause, said he drove in a truck with bin Laden from Jalalabad toward Tora Bora on the night of Nov. 6.

He was present when bin Laden met with several chiefs of the Ghilzi tribe, whose villages straddle the rugged border between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Some 400 Kalashnikovs were given as "gifts" to the Ghilzi tribesmen. In exchange, the tribesmen promised to help smuggle Afghan and Arab leaders to freedom in Pakistan. It was a quid pro quo that the Ghilzis understood well.

When bin Laden finally decided that remaining inside the embattled Tora Bora terror base had become too risky, he used the same Ghilzi contacts to escape the siege.

"Most of us firmly believe that Osama left to Parachinar in Pakistan days ago," says Abdul Wafi, a lieutenant for Commander Ghamsharik. Eight Afghan Al Qaeda prisoners, who surrendered Thursday night, gave similar accounts. They told their captors that bin Laden had left Tora Bora almost two weeks ago.

The current exodus of Al Qaeda fighters from Tora Bora began in earnest when Ghamsharik failed in his own efforts to gain a UN-backed "surrender" for the Al Qaeda fighters.

American officials, who have been highly secretive about relations with the Afghan fighters, were likely incensed to find that Ghamsharik and some of his fellow Khugani tribesmen were offering the Arabs "safe passage" out of Tora Bora.

Afghan sources say that US military officials replaced the ethnic Pashtun leader at the "sharp end" of their military operations with a rival warlord, Hazrat Ali. Mr. Ali claimed only three days ago that he had bin Laden cornered in a cave.

Before any moves were made against Tora Bora two weeks ago, Ghamsharik decided to ask the Arabs in the White Mountains to simply leave their province. Indeed, a senior alliance member, Mujahid Ullah, later appointed as the region's information minister, two weeks earlier had personally persuaded the Arabs to depart Jalalabad without a fight in exchange for "safe passage" into Tora Bora.

"Some of the Arabs were arguing to stay and fight, but Mujahid Ullah was persuading Osama to go and not to resist," says Babrak Khan, who was present two days before the fall of the Taliban in Jalalabad a month ago. "After a long discussion, he agreed to go."

The battle for Tora Bora finally got under way a full week after newspapers published accounts of bin Laden entering Tora Bora with his closest aids.

Ghamsharik - the most senior Afghan military commander - said two weeks ago, that he was launching the offensive because he had no other option. One of the reasons he gave for the attack was, ironically, that stray US bombs had killed 140 Afghan villagers, including some of his own fighters, in the villages at the foot of Tora Bora. "My people are angry at me for what has happened, but they will fight alongside me and get killed in greater numbers than US airstrikes have already killed," he added.

And last week, Ghamsharik could be overheard asking Al Qaeda fighters over a radio to "surrender or leave."

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