By Chris Tomlinson
TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Enemy gunners hit two Americans today as U.S. special forces joined Afghan guerrillas attacking an al-Qaida machine-gun nest in the Tora Bora mountains, alliance fighters said. A tribal leader claimed Osama bin Laden may be cornered in a nearby cave.
Two hundred al-Qaida fighters were encircled by eastern alliance soldiers at the suspected bin Laden base, said Hazrat Ali, security chief for the tribal alliance.
“I don’t know, but I think there is a place inside where Osama is,” Ali said. “We hope to catch Osama.”
In Tora Bora’s White Mountains, the 12-member U.S. special forces team joined three wings of eastern alliance fighters pressing al-Qaida positions.
As the group came under heavy fire from a machine-gun nest, two Americans were grazed – one in the shoulder, the other in the knee – said Khawri, an Afghan assigned to fight with them. They were not identified.
Khawri, who goes by one name, said Afghans helped the Americans down the mountainside and bundled them into a truck.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war, said he had no information on Americans being wounded but could not rule it out.
“I do not believe we have had any American men or women in uniform injured today,” he said. “That’s my current belief.”
Speaking to reporters in Tampa, Fla., the general said it was not clear where bin Laden was hiding. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
And President Bush appealed for patience.
“I don’t know whether we’re going to get him tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now. … But we’re going to get him,” Bush said. “I don’t care, dead or alive – either way. It doesn’t matter to me.”
In southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines seized the Kandahar Airport and are expected to transfer the bulk of their forces there in the largest mobilization since setting up a desert base nearby on Nov. 25.
Hundreds of Marines were checking for mines and booby traps in the terminal building, and a commander declared the runway fit for aircraft. The airport is to become a major arrival point for humanitarian aid that will be desperately needed as winter settles on Afghanistan.
In the White Mountains, Khawri, the Afghan assigned to fight with the U.S. special forces, said the troops pointed a device that looked to him like a box at the al-Qaida post while Afghan fighters fired on the machine-gunners.
U.S. forces appeared to be using a laser to mark targets for laser-guided munitions. Khawri said a bomb hit the machine-gun nest soon afterward.
“We went up there and there was nothing left. Everything was destroyed,” Khawri said. “There was one dead person. The body was in the branches of a tree.”
Franks said it was a “pitched” battle around Tora Bora, and estimated there were between 300 and 1,000 al-Qaida fighters.
Later, Afghan fighters claimed to be closing in on 500-600 al-Qaida members cornered in the forested mountains and to have encircled at least 100 of the 200-member force defending the cave that Ali believed could be bin Laden’s lair.
“They are surrounded and they cannot escape,” Ali said. He did not say why he thought bin Laden was in the cave.
Atiqullah Racham, a top aide to commander Haji Zahir, said heavy U.S. bombing prevented fighters from entering the cave today, but “tomorrow we hope to have good news for you: the fall of al-Qaida.”
Racham said eastern alliance forces captured other caves today and found blank U.S. and European passports, religious books and letters.
Commanders do not know where other al-Qaida fighters have fled, but speculate they are holed up in an 8-square-mile forest over the ridge of a nearby mountain. The Pakistan frontier is just miles away.
A large fire bomb fell on the forest this evening, sending up a huge and lingering fireball that was visible two miles away. U.S. bombers and AC-130 Spectre gunships circled over the ridge where the suspect cave was located, pounding defensive positions.
Al-Qaida forces are corralled in the Agam and Wazir valleys, two parallel canyons between high mountain peaks. Afghan opposition forces are blocking the north ends of both north-south valleys and advancing on the al-Qaida forces.
The southern ends of both valleys cross the border into Pakistan, where that country’s military has arrayed troops to block escape. Pentagon officials say the Afghan opposition forces are several miles from the Pakistan border.
A $25 million bounty for bin Laden – prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States – has whetted the appetite for finding him.
While bin Laden was the focus of the fierce conflict at Tora Bora, some officials say he is more likely holed up in another part of Afghanistan, nearer Kandahar in the south, or even may have left the country.
In other developments:
The U.S. Marines who took over Kandahar airport arrived by helicopter or came in overland. Afghans greeted them as they passed by in the dead of night, waving automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in celebration.
The runway was littered with unexploded ordnance and pocked by bomb craters from intense U.S. attacks on former Taliban and al-Qaida defenders. Burned-out and mangled aircraft sat on the tarmac.
The Marines cleared the debris, and Lt. James Jarvis said the runway could handle planes. By nightfall, the Marines had swept about half the airport buildings for mines and booby traps, Jarvis said.
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