Franks says progress being made in Tora Bora; items seized in camps being tested for evidence of weapons of mass destruction

Sunday, December 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ American and Afghan forces are making slow but steady progress in gaining control of the Tora Bora area where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida terrorists are believed hiding out, the U.S. war commander for Afghanistan said Sunday.

In Tora Bora, tribal fighters said they took the last al-Qaida positions Sunday, but found no sign of bin Laden. The situation was not as clear to Army Gen. Tommy Franks as U.S. forces joined with Afghan fighters in a ground campaign.

``They are 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.

``It's physically a matter of digging out the al-Qaida from these caves and tunnels. ... 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 said on ABC's ``This Week.''

Bin Laden's whereabouts were uncertain, Franks said. He noted that U.S. officials have been trying to monitor radio transmissions that may or may not contain bin Laden's voice.

``We're not sure whether it's UBL (Osama bin Laden) or not. ... When one listens to these radio transmissions, is that the voice of UBL or is it not? ... Is it really true that bin Laden is in Pakistan? We simply don't know right now,'' Franks said. U.S. analyses of the transmissions continued.

Americans can listen in on such radio transmissions, including gear carried by special operations forces and instruments on aircraft and satellites.

Also Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped in Afghanistan after visiting three former Soviet republics. He was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since the American-led campaign began more than 70 days ago.

He was meeting the new interim prime minister Hamid Karzai at Bagram airport outside the capital, Kabul.

Rumsfeld told reporters that items recovered from an abandoned terrorist training camp in southern Afghanistan over the weekend by U.S. forces were being tested for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

He said the U.S. discovery at a deserted al-Qaida camp yielded a large and significant amount of items. Tests were being conducted for traces of chemical, biological and radiological material.

The Tarnak Farms camp, located only a few miles east of the U.S. military's remote desert base about 70 miles from Kandahar, is on a list of more than a dozen locations troops want to investigate, Rumsfeld said.

Franks said the list of such sites inside Afghanistan has grown to more than 50.

``We are going through them very, very methodically,'' the general said. Officials were reviewing information about terrorists poisons, explosives, and methods, and taking soil samples.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the United States takes bin Laden ``at his word when he says that it is a religious duty of the al-Qaida network to acquire weapons of mass destruction.''

She said on CBS' ``Face the Nation'' that ``a lot is being found in these houses, in the places that are being raided, that suggests they were trying at least to acquire these weapons of mass destruction.''

Rumsfeld said Afghan fighters aided by U.S. and British soldiers advanced Saturday against al-Qaida holdouts during ``an intense battle'' while U.S. airstrikes supported the ground troops.

``They've captured a number of al-Qaida, they've killed a number of al-Qaida and they've wounded a number of al-Qaida,'' he said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell was optimistic about the fighting. ``We're well on our way to success on this part of the campaign'' and cited some ``light resistance'' from al-Qaida forces.

From Afghanistan, the war on terrorism will move forward, he said. ``Al-Qaida's being destroyed in Afghanistan. Now we have to destroy it wherever it exists around the world,'' Powell said.

Three U.S. Marines were injured Sunday when a land mine exploded at Kandahar's airport. The Marines are building a prisoner of war camp at the airport.