Bin Laden Fighters Pounded, Marines Seal off Exits from Kandahar

Published December 10th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

US forces stepped up ground and air operations on two fronts Monday against Osama bin Laden's fighters and his former Taliban allies in Afghanistan. 

American warplanes and Afghan tanks and artillery pounded an eastern mountain range where hundreds of bin Laden's al-Qaeda fighters and possibly their leader have taken refuge. 

In the south a Marine force backed by helicopters and light armoured vehicles was deployed to cut off escape routes from Kandahar, the former headquarters of the Taliban which was surrendered to US-allied Afghan forces Friday. 

The forested slopes of the White Mountains came under bombardment early Monday from two B-52 bombers. 

Afghan forces later joined in with shelling from tanks and an anti-aircraft gun, an AFP reporter saw. The two sides exchanged mortar fire.  

US fighter aircraft overnight and early Monday also blasted the mountainside around Tora Bora, where al-Qaeda fighters -- many of them Arabs -- are believed to have taken refuge in an extensive cave complex. 

US Marines meanwhile set up a staging area closer to Kandahar to make it easier to block escape routes for bin Laden's followers and others. 

More than a dozen helicopters dropped off Marines, food, water and weapons at a desert location near Kandahar where light armored vehicles and Humvee all-purpose vehicles had gathered since the morning. 

Patrols have been moving to cut off lines of communication, supply and escape to and from Kandahar for the last week. 

But officers said the staging area makes it easier to fan out for manhunts. 

Since Kandahar fell, the Marines have turned their sights on killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders. Marines above the rank of sergeant are carrying photographs of key members. 

"What you've seen is the moving of Marines and assets up north ... closer to Kandahar to block possible avenues and exits," Captain Stewart Upton said. 

"We're still looking for al-Qaeda, and any Taliban that still have their weapons or don't drop them will die," Upton told reporters. 

The Taliban's five-year fundamentalist rule over most of Afghanistan finally ended Friday with the surrender of Kandahar. 

But the whereabouts of bin Laden and of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar -- who for years sheltered the terror suspect and his al-Qaeda fighters -- are unclear. 

In Islamabad a spokesman for the US-led coalition against terrorism said the "noose is closing" around bin Laden. 

"We have reasons to think that progress is being made in closing the noose around Osama. We haven't caught him but we think it's only a question of when, not if," said Kenton Keith. 

Keith acknowledged there had been no confirmed sightings of bin Laden around Tora Bora but said he and Omar are still believed to be in Afghanistan. 

"The progress of the campaign is such that the areas in which he (bin Laden) could act and hide are getting smaller every day." 

A spokesman for senior ethnic Pashtun commander Hazrat Ali told AFP that Afghan forces had captured several heights in the White Mountains range from al-Qaeda fighters. 

"We have taken Melawa, Palanai and a large portion of Anzare Sar and we hope to finish the job late Monday or Tuesday," the spokesman said. 

In Kabul a separate US marine force occupied the American embassy Monday, returning for the first time in 12 years. Armed marines were seen standing behind sandbags on the roof. 

A US military spokesman said they were there to secure the building and no decision had been taken about reopening the mission. 

But plans to deploy a separate international security force hit a snag, with the victorious Northern Alliance of Afghan factions insisting that the force would have only a limited role. 

The alliance would keep troops in Kabul even after the deployment of the international force, defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Habeel told AFP. 

An inter-Afghan accord struck in Bonn last week specifies that all Afghan military units should withdraw from the capital. 

Habeel also said the overseas force will not be allowed to patrol the city. 

They "can only patrol places where the new government will meet. It was agreed that our own forces will keep security in Kabul," he said. 

The ministry spokesman said the multinational force should not be deployed until after December 22, when the interim government led by Hamid Karzai takes power in Kabul. 

The UN's senior peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guehenno, has said he wants it to begin deploying as soon as possible -- KABUL (AFP) 

© 2001 Al Bawaba (

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