The hunt for Osama bin Laden and deposed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar intensifies as Afghan chiefs vie for control of Kandahar.
Northern Alliance fighters search the Tora Bora mountains for terrorists
After the fall of the Taliban stronghold Kandahar, American military forces have stepped up their search for Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. On Sunday the US warplanes continued to pound eastern Afghanistan and the Tora Bora mountains in support of local Afghan forces pursuing bin Laden and his Taliban ally Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Anti-Taliban forces said bin Laden was leading about 1,000 men in the defense of his bomb-blasted mountain hideouts near the Pakistani border.
Afghan fighters loyal to the North Alliance have reported seeing a tall figure in flowing white robes on horseback galloping across the rugged Afghan terrain, prompting speculation that the fugitive bin Laden was running from one cave hide-out to another.
About 2,000 anti-Taliban fighters are searching the numerous mountain caves and tunnels where bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
"You could bomb day and night and it won’t make a big difference," said local commander Hazrat Ali. "Soldiers have to go in there."
The question is whose soldiers will go in after bin Laden. The US has some ground troops, but none in the region around Tora Bora. And such fighting in the unfamiliar terrain is likely to be risky.
Pakistan has reinforced its military presence in the region, but its troops are needed for protecting the long border with Afghanistan to prevent fleeing Taliban and members of bin Laden’s terrorist network Al Qaeda from sneaking out of the country.
US marine "hunter-killer" teams backed up by Cobra attack helicopters were busy sealing off escape routes from Kandahar and targeting remaining al Qaeda fighters. Several hundred al Qaeda soldiers were said to be holding out at a corner of Kandahar airport.
"We’re still looking for identified terrorists, specifically al Qaeda," Marine Captain Stewart Upton told reporters at the American airbase near Kandahar on Saturday.
"We’re not necessarily looking for Taliban soldiers," Upton said. The US is focusing attention on known terrorists.
According to Upton, all marine officers above the rank of sergeant were carrying photographs of key al Qaeda members including the world's most wanted terrorist, bin Laden, and Taliban leader Omar.
In the meantime, Pashtun tribal chiefs met on Sunday in Kandahar to discuss who would rule the former Taliban bastion and the border town of Spin Boldak. Hamid Karzai, the designated interim prime minister of Afghanistan, called the council of chiefs to resolve disputes among the frequent enemies and put an end to further civil war.
One commander, who asked for anonymity, said the forces of former Kandahar governor Gul Agha had criticized Mullah Naqibullah for not keeping the situation in Kandahar under control. Naquibulla was to preside over the surrender of Taliban soldiers on Friday before many of them fled the city under the cover of darkness.
Gul Agha spokesman, Khalid Pashtoon, denied reports of a dispute during the council, but admitted that Naqibullah was a problem.
"Last night the situation in Kandahar was completely quiet," Pashtoon told Reuters on Sunday.
But the tribal chiefs fear that Kandahar could easily turn into another Kunduz, where the fierce fighting between pro-Taliban forces and those loyal to the new government lasted for days and resulted in a high death toll on both sides.
"There is a shura (council) in the city now to try and figure out how to control the situation. Mullah Naqibullah is also there, but that is the biggest problem. Right now, we have to convince Mullah Naqibullah to stand aside," Pashtoon said, fearing that Naqibullah could exacerbate the already tense surrender negotiations.
Karzai has promised amnesty to Taliban soldiers, but said that Omar and other leaders were criminals who must be punished.