TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) Afghan tribal fighters battled their way through mortar and machine-gun fire yesterday and pushed Osama bin Laden loyalists from a strategic mountain valley leading to an underground complex where the terror suspect may be hiding.
B-52s and other American warplanes battered al-Qaida mortar positions on the mountaintops as the Afghan fighters helped by U.S. special forces seized caves in the Milawa valley in the White Mountains. A commander said forces loyal to bin Laden had been pushed back to the main complex at Tora Bora about a mile away.
U.S. Marines also intensified their hunt for Taliban leaders and members of the al-Qaida terror network around the southern city of Kandahar the other region where Afghan and American officials think bin Laden may be hiding.
Marine “hunter-killer” teams in armored assault vehicles and backed by combat helicopters set up a staging ground at the foot of a jagged mountain about 12 miles outside Kandahar, from which officials said they could intercept fleeing fighters on the roads.
In Washington, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that although the Taliban have fallen, the military faced the tough task of tracking down bin Laden and eliminating al-Qaida.
“Large numbers of al-Qaida terrorists are still at large. It”s going to be a very long and difficult job,” he said.
Afghanistan”s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said getting rid of al-Qaida was a priority as the country tries to build a stable post-Taliban government.
“What Afghanistan needs is the full establishment of a national state, but first we must root out all the terrorists,” he told journalists in the former house of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in Kandahar. “We must burn out all these roots.”
Karzai promised there would be no amnesty for the cleric if he were caught. Omar has disappeared since the Taliban abandoned Kandahar, their birthplace and last major city, on Friday.
The Pentagon said it targeted a cave in the Tora Bora area with its largest conventional bomb, the 15,000-pound “daisy cutter,” on Sunday on suspicion the cave might contain senior al-Qaida leaders, possibly including bin Laden. Spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said damage from the strike was not known.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that intelligence reports indicate bin Laden is hiding in Tora Bora, a complex of caves and tunnels carved into the White Mountains near the Pakistani border.