Afghans claim victory, but U.S. more cautious

Herald news services

TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Even if Sunday was, as one Afghan commander here said, “the last day of al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” that does not mean that the fighting in this war-ravaged country will end any time soon.

After nine weeks of siege, Afghan tribal leaders claimed victory Sunday over al-Qaida guerrillas at their last stronghold in Afghanistan. But Osama bin Laden was nowhere to be seen, and U.S. officials said the fighting around Tora Bora was far from finished.

U.S. jets bombed targets Sunday as al-Qaida fighters fled deeper into forests on the snowcapped mountain range. American and British soldiers have also been helping the tribal Eastern Alliance, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a brief visit to Afghanistan, told reporters that fierce battles in the Tora Bora area the previous day had slowed Sunday.

With Afghan commanders saying at least 200 al-Qaida fighters had been killed and that hundreds of others were on the run, no one knew if bin Laden was dead, fleeing, holed up deep in one of the eastern region’s thousands of caves – or if he’d been there at all.

Militiamen reported early this morning seeing U.S. special forces combing the mountains for al-Qaida survivors. Bombing from U.S. warplanes continued through the night, but at a slower pace than in recent weeks.

Eastern Alliance fighters went cave-to-cave, finding stores of ammunition and food. Some reported skirmishes overnight with fleeing forces of al-Qaida, bin Laden’s terrorist network. A front-line commander said his men skirmished with one group, killing two of them and capturing five.

Commanders Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman came down from the rugged cliffsides to declare they commanded all the caves in the Tora Bora area, a claim impossible to verify.

“This is the last day of al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” Zaman said of bin Laden’s terrorist network of foreign fighters.

But after a five-hour lull in U.S. airstrikes, at least two bombs fell on the area and an AC-130 gunship was hammering nighttime targets with its howitzer, although the action sounded farther away, as if the planes were going after fleeing forces.

Bombs fell in the distance this morning.

“There are people trying to escape, and people trying to run them down,” Rumsfeld said.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the war’s commander, said from Florida that the alliance of tribal fighters operating in eastern Afghanistan was “making progress, but I think it’s accurate to say that it’s going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control.”

Franks said that U.S. officials “simply don’t know” what has become of bin Laden. The leader of the U.S. Central Command described the Tora Bora battleground as “confused” and said it will take time to examine the results of the air and ground assault.

“It’s a matter of inching our way forward up the sides of these canyons and physically going into each one of these bunkers and caves,” Franks told ABC News.

It was never clear how many al-Qaida fighters were there; estimates have ranged from several hundred to more than 1,000. Sunday, Ali said he believed there had been 700 in the mountains, 500 of whom may have escaped.

Neither Zaman nor Ali could answer the most pressing question of the long, bloody campaign: Where is bin Laden?

“A few days before I had information that he was here,” Ali said. “But now I don’t know where he is.”

What was believed to be his fortified cave was the last to be taken Sunday, Ali said. Inside were six fighters, one of whom was killed. The commander promised to scour the mountains “meter by meter” to find stragglers. But with so many caves in the area, it could be a long time before anyone knows with certainty that fighters, including bin Laden, are not there.

Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, three U.S. Marines were wounded Sunday, one seriously, when one of them stepped on a land mine at their new base inside Kandahar International Airport. The airport, which is heavily mined, on Sunday saw its first incoming flights of fixed-wing U.S. aircraft.

Marines spokesman Captain David Romley said all three were in stable condition Sunday night, but the one who triggered the mine was believed to have lost his leg below the knee. Romley would not identify the men, pending notification of their families.

Romley said it was the Marines’ “first battlefield injury” since beginning operations in Afghanistan last month.

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