Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
Abdul Ghias, 70, cries in despair as he holds a piece of grass bread in the remote northern mountain village of Bonavash, Afghanistan, yesterday. Besieged by the Taliban and crushed by years of crop-devastating drought, the people in the region are dying

WASHINGTON Surviving leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network are repeatedly trying to regroup at a warren of caves and bunkers in eastern Afghanistan, despite three attacks on the complex in four days by U.S. warplanes, senior Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The most recent strike on the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr training camp, late Sunday night, hit tanks and artillery, officials said. But military intelligence analysts say they believe the camp, which snakes down a narrow, winding, desert valley near the town of Khowst, still harbors terrorist militants.

It is the same site hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 in the Clinton administration”s unsuccessful attempt to strike at Osama bin Laden and his top aides. It includes a number of caves built into the valley”s sheer cliff walls and is difficult to eradicate, said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We bombed again yesterday,” Stufflebeem told reporters at a Pentagon briefing yesterday. “But we”re not done there. … Something”s coming out of the ground. And we”re after it.”

In discussing the repeated strikes on the training camp, and on other suspected terrorist hide-outs in recent weeks, Stufflebeem painted a picture of small bands of al-Qaida loyalists on the run throughout Afghanistan but persistently seeking to rearm and regroup where they can.

“They are obviously widely dispersed,” Stufflebeem said. “They are attempting to regroup so that they can amass for leadership and mischief purposes. … They”re just trying to find each other and then, obviously, to continue their war.”

Warplanes also struck Sunday in Khowst, about 10 miles from the training camp, destroying what Pentagon officials described yesterday as a small cache of anti-aircraft weapons. Khowst is known as the headquarters of a former minister in the ousted Taliban regime, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is wanted by the United States.

The strikes in Khowst and at the Zhawar Kili training camp were among 118 sorties flown by U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan on Sunday. They were carried out by one B-52 and two B1-B bombers, one Navy F/A-18 jet fighter, and one low-flying AC-130 gunship, Pentagon officials said.

The Pentagon has been particularly intent on striking Zhawar Kili, hitting it with 250 bombs last week alone. But Stufflebeem denied reports that bin Laden was believed to be hiding at the compound.

Stufflebeem said the complex, composed of three separate training areas and two cave complexes, has drawn attention because it is a particularly large al-Qaida command center. Some al-Qaida fighters might have gravitated there from Tora Bora, the site of heavy bombing by U.S. warplanes in December.

“There are obviously still al-Qaida and pro-Taliban that are loose there, and we”re continuing to find them, and we”re continuing to strike their equipment as we”ve found them,” Stufflebeem said.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces continue to take Taliban and al-Qaida members into custody. The number of detainees stood at 346 yesterday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.

Stufflebeem would not say how many senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders were in American custody. “We know senior leadership is being detained. We know senior leadership has been killed. And we know senior leadership is not yet in (U.S.) custody,” he said.

More than 1,000 troops, most of them military police and construction crews, were deployed over the weekend to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to beef up security at former refugee camp sites that are being transformed to hold the prisoners.

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