A top Afghan commander claimed Friday to have located and surrounded a cave in which he believed Osama bin Laden could be hiding.
According to AP, eastern alliance defense chief Hazrat Ali added his fighters had surrounded a large number of bin Laden's al-Qaida guerrillas on a mountain ridge in the Tora Bora area in eastern Afghanistan - near to the cave.
Ali did not explain why he thought bin Laden might be inside the cave, one of several in a gorge where his tribesmen were fighting al-Qaida forces amid heavy U.S. aerial bombing.
Earlier it was reported that the United States increased its forces in eastern Afghanistan to aid in the search for Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be among al-Qaeda fighters in two cave-riddled valleys in the area.
A combination of indications -- the fierceness of the fighting, reported sightings of bin Laden by Afghan troops and anecdotal information from a variety of intelligence sources -- points to his presence among the fighters in the Agam and Wazir valleys, a senior US military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"No one of those by itself would be very convincing, but when all three of those things come to the same conclusion, you'd better pay attention and at least check it out and make that the area of your focus," the official said.
According to AFP, the official said the two valleys where al-Qaeda fighters were concentrated run north and south from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
"To the south, opening up into Pakistan, you've got Pakistani troops in perfect blocking position," he said. "In the north, in the Agam valley, you've got the fighters of Hazrat Ali, and coming down from the north, in the Wazir valley, you've got the fighters of Mohammad Zaman."
"They are fighting al-Qaeda fighters in both valleys, and the fighting is really fierce," he said.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said reports on the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leader were conflicting, with one reliable source putting him inside Afghanistan and another placing him outside the country.
His comments came after the Pentagon released a videotape in which bin Laden discusses the planning for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and mentions how the damage surpassed his own expectations.
Rumsfeld said he was concerned that fleeing al-Qaeda fighters could slip out of the country and regroup to fight again.
"I'm not only concerned about it, but we've known it was a likelihood from day one," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that any number of al-Qaeda have gone across various borders and do intend to fight again."
Without giving specifics, Rumsfeld confirmed that the numbers of US Special Forces in the Tora Bora area have been increased and suggested that their role would go beyond that of liaison with Afghan forces.
"We put people in there who have a capability to do a host of different things. They are people who are combatants," he said.
"They would be there to do whatever needed to be done to get their hands on the kind of people we're looking for."
Officials said the search for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters continues at other locations, as well, noting that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, remains at large.
Rumsfeld said the United States was preparing to offer a 10 million-dollar reward for Omar. A 25 million-dollar bounty is already on bin Laden's head.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )