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Americans now want bin Laden taken alive

by Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Islamabad
Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 2001


Silent sentinel ... an Afghan mujahideen, with a rifle for solace, watches from his vantage point as US warplanes blast al-Qaeda forces. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

The United States has sent extra teams of special forces into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan amid renewed expectations of a breakthrough in the battle to capture the last stronghold of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

As US bombers and C-130 helicopter gunships pounded targets in the Tora Bora district yesterday, Pentagon officials claimed they had fresh indications that bin Laden was in the area - trapped by allied troops and Afghan militia.

In an apparent change of tactics, Pentagon officials said teams of soldiers and CIA officers in the area had been ordered to try to capture bin Laden and his lieutenants, rather than kill them.

The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, confirmed that the US wanted to detain and interrogate the al-Qaeda leadership to strengthen its hand in breaking up the movement's global terrorist network.

"Of course, I want them to surrender and be captured and interrogated so that we could also know their organisation and plans in other countries," he told a Washington news briefing.

Mr Rumsfeld again dismissed persistent reports that bin Laden may have escaped across the nearby border into Pakistan. He is said to have ghosted his way out of the Tora Bora area, where as many as 2000 al-Qaeda fighters and hardline Taliban supporters are dug in.

"We think he's in Afghanistan. We're chasing him. He's hiding. He does not want us to know where he is and we are asking everyone we can to help," Mr Rumsfeld said.

CNN quoted a US military official as saying bin Laden was now believed to be "effectively surrounded" in an area of caves linking the Wazir and Agam valleys in the Tora Bora region, near where Afghan fighters overran a large complex of caves and tunnels this week.

The CNN report said US Delta Force commandos were in the area, directing air strikes against al-Qaeda fighters, who were putting up strong resistance, while "snatch and grab" teams of US troops were in position to bring out captured rebels.

The renewed fighting around Tora Bora came as hundreds of US marines moved to take control of the main airport at Kandahar, amid reports that allied forces were preparing to move there from the desert forward base established 90 kilometres south-west of the city late last month.

About 150 Australian Special Air Services troops and British and German special forces have been deployed in operations out of the base at Dolangi.

Dozens of the American and British special forces, dressed in baggy Afghan tunics and woollen caps, were seen climbing the mountains towards al-Qaeda positions in Tora Bora late on Thursday after being flown into the area aboard six helicopters.

It is now believed that at least 100 US and British troops are involved in the operation, supporting a force of about 2000 Afghan fighters who resumed their attacks after talks on a possible surrender broke down early on Thursday.

One Afghan commander, Mohamad Aman, told the Afghan Islamic Press that local militias had pushed al-Qaeda fighters back from several hilltop positions during heavy fighting late on Thursday. He said he was confident the rebel resistance would be broken during the weekend.

Two days of peace talks between Afghan commanders and some of the al-Qaeda forces collapsed after al-Qaeda leaders apparently ordered their men to fight to the death.

"There are no more negotiations. We are launching the battle now," the Afghan commander, Haji Mohamad Zaman, later told reporters.

Another commander in contact with the rebels, Haji Zahir, said through a spokesman: "They said, 'We want martyrdom ... We will succeed'. We tried to talk to them but they don't want to surrender."

© 2001 Sydney Morning Herald
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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