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Taliban, al-Qaida troops slip away

Taliban, al-Qaida troops slip away

Author:
Publication: NBC, MSNBC and news services
Date: December 11, 2001

[Caption] Afghan allies of the United States on Tuesday investigate a cave in the Tora Bora area that had been used by fleeing al-Qaida fighters.

Dec. 11 - Hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida troops -- including many of the remaining leaders -- have slipped out of Afghanistan into neighboring Iran and Pakistan, alarming military officials, Pentagon sources told NBC News on Tuesday. As U.S. soldiers tried to block escape routes, America's Afghan allies waited to see if a group of al-Qaida fighters near Tora Bora would surrender by a deadline just a few hours away.

TALIBAN LEADER Mullah Omar remains missing and is believed to be holed up outside Kandahar, but U.S. officials told NBC News that almost all of the remaining top 22 Taliban leaders have escaped into Pakistan.

Sources also told NBC News that as many as 500 Taliban and al-Qaida troops captured at Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz had bought safe passage into Iran.

''They can escape across the borders and regroup and then plot to strike again as they have promised to do,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

Most have escaped on foot or horseback over remote mountain trails. One top leader was wounded and still escaped, sources said.

U.S. troops from the 10th Mountain Division are patrolling the mountainous areas along the Pakistani border. And Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, said it had sent 4,000 troops to the area.

In southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marine ''hunter-killer'' teams with armed vehicles have set up a staging ground about 12 miles from Kandahar to cut off escape routes, and Huey command-and-control and Cobra attack helicopters are patrolling the air.

''We continue to conduct interdiction efforts to halt their fleeing and try to seal off as much as possible and as many as possible potential avenues for their escape,'' Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday.

SURRENDER DEADLINE APPROACHES

In Tora Bora, a senior Afghan ally said a cease-fire had been declared after a group of al-Qaida fighters made radio contact to discuss surrender terms.

Mohammed Zaman added that the al-Qaida forces were given until Wednesday morning local time -- 10:30 p.m. ET Tuesday -- to surrender or face death. Al-Qaida fighters were told they must surrender unconditionally and would be handed over to the ''international community'' for trial, Zaman added.

It was unclear how many al-Qaida fighters were talking of surrender. In the past, forces loyal to bin Laden have vowed to fight to the death.

Myers said the United States had ''no confirmation'' of surrender talks and emphasized, ''the military mission remains to destroy al-Qaida.''

Rumsfeld and Myers urged reporters to stay away from describing the situation as a cease-fire. Indeed, as they spoke, reports came in from Tora Bora that at least one American AC-130 gunship had blasted the area late Tuesday local time.

It remained unknown whether bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, was anywhere near the fighting, or if he had fled the region.

''I don't know if he is dead or alive. Tomorrow we may know,'' Zaman said.

SOME CAVES SEARCHED

Tuesday morning, tribal fighters overran al-Qaida positions in the Milawa and Tora Bora valleys amid barrages of small arms fire from al-Qaida fighters.

What they found included a sniper nest on top of a ridge containing three dead al-Qaida fighters, their bodies shredded by heavy machine gun fire. Outside an al-Qaida gun training center, paper targets from the National Rifle Association littered the ground, complete with names and scores written in Arabic.

Inside caves, ammunition lay scattered on the ground and posters of Palestinian militants adorned some of the walls. A bloody white cloth, syringe and bag of intravenous fluids indicated one cave -- at an altitude of 10,000 feet -- had housed wounded fighters. Arabic- English and Arabic-Chinese textbooks were found in another cave.

Afghan tribal fighters ventured into the cave mouths as far as daylight carried, shouting for anyone still inside to surrender. There was no reply.

Most of the caves were small, extending maybe 30 to 40 feet into the mountainside, with some entrances as large as a door and others just big enough to crawl through.

Hundreds of other caves have yet to be searched, and still could harbor al-Qaida fighters.

'DAISY-CUTTER' DROPPED

The Afghan assault came after intense U.S. bombing, including a 15,000-pound ''daisy cutter'' bomb dropped Sunday on an al-Qaida position.

Myers said Tuesday that the bomb ''had the desired effect ... to kill al-Qaida.'' U.S. troops who inspected the damage saw dead fighters, he added, but it was not known if any fighters were al-Qaida leaders.

The biggest bomb in the U.S. arsenal of conventional weapons, the daisy cutter is designed to kill anyone in a 600-yard radius, leaving a distinctive daisy-shaped blast area.

One mountaintop overlooking Tuesday's battle had been flattened and scorched, possibly by the daisy cutter. Trees were reduced to ashes, and the ground was littered with shrapnel.
 


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