Tribal fighters attack bin Laden caves; three Americans killed in errant airstrike

Wednesday, December 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) _ Anti-Taliban forces battled guerrillas loyal to Osama bin Laden with tanks and mortars Wednesday, fighting their way through remote mountains toward a cave complex where they believe the terror suspect is holed up.

Up to 1,500 tribal fighters pushed down a valley in the White Mountains toward Tora Bora camp as American B-52s pounded the area with 250- and 500-pound bombs, setting off orange flashes and plumes of smoke in the forested mountains.

Anti-Taliban commanders said their troops advanced to within a mile of the anthill-like cave complex in eastern Afghanistan, sending the Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters of bin Laden's al-Qaida network scurrying to higher ground.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said U.S. special forces were in the area helping direct airstrikes and gathering intelligence. He said Afghan fighters had already entered some caves in the area searching for al-Qaida members.

Afghan commander Amil Shah said al-Qaida fighters in the area had nowhere to run, with escape routes into Pakistan to the east snowed in. ``We are trying our best to capture them alive. They are surrounded by us, but they are not surrendering,'' he said.

Anti-Taliban forces advanced up the narrow, forested valley while their tanks shelled the hilltops a mile away. Al-Qaida fighters fired back with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Local officials in Nangarhar province say they believe bin Laden is in Tora Bora _ the name means ``black dust'' _ although the northern alliance thinks he is in the Kandahar area more than 300 miles to the southwest.

_ Outside Kandahar, three American servicemen were killed and 19 others wounded when a B-52 bombing strike they had called in went astray and hit near their position. Five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters were also killed and around 20 wounded.

_ Afghan factions meeting in Germany chose Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai as head of a 30-member interim government for their war-ravaged nation.

_ Secretary of State Colin Powell named the top U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, James Dobbins, to head a liaison office in Kabul with the new interim government.

_ Pakistan said it would round up Afghans living in its cities and send them to refugee camps, because it expects the new interim government in Afghanistan will pave the way for their return home. About 3 million Afghans live in Pakistan, only 1.2 million of them in refugee camps.

U.S. warplanes have focused their bombing on two regions _ the Tora Bora area near the eastern city of Jalalabad and the region of Kandahar in the south, the Taliban's last stronghold, under siege by Afghan tribal fighters.

U.S. Marines who have been building up a base in the desert outside Kandahar for days have now moved to offensive operations for the first time, helping to cut off roads and communications into the city and cutting off possible Taliban escape routes, U.S. officials said.

Maj. James Parrington, an operations officer at the base, said Marine reconnaissance units were already identifying key pieces of terrain to be used in sealing off the city.

``Opposition groups are now closing in on Kandahar,'' he said. ``We are supporting them by conducting offensive operations.''

Anti-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen, backed by U.S. bombing and American special forces, have been closing on Kandahar from the north, south and the east, including a force led by Karzai.

President Bush launched military operations in Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban rulers refused to hand over bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Intense bombing by the United States and a ground offensive by the northern alliance forced the Taliban last month to retreat from the capital Kabul and most of the country, drawing their remaining forces around Kandahar where the movement was organized nearly a decade ago.

Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has ordered all Taliban to defend Kandahar to the death.

The conference in Germany between four Afghan factions agreed Wednesday on a post-Taliban administration to run the country for the next six months until a council of tribal elders decides on a more permanent arrangement.

The factions named a 30-member Cabinet with a mix of the country's main ethnic groups. It also includes two women in an attempt to leave the repressive Taliban regime in the past.

``We are very happy today,'' said Bibi Gul, a widow still wearing a body-enveloping burqa on the streets of Kabul.

The only ones to speak out against the new arrangement were the Taliban, who weren't invited to the talks and who denounced the new Cabinet as imposed by foreigners.

``We will continue to fight against the puppets of America,'' said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the militia's former ambassador to Pakistan.