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Anti-Taliban Forces Move on Caves in Tora Bora

In the south, Pashtun tribes battled Taliban and al-Qaida fighters defending Kandahar.

In the Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan, tribal commander Alim Shah said his troops were pursuing a mostly Arab al-Qaida force armed with mortars, rocket launchers and assault rifles. The al-Qaida fighters were retreating to positions above the caves because their only escape routes to Pakistan — in the east — had been snowed in.

“We are trying to capture them alive,” Shah said. “They are surrounded by us, but they are not surrendering.”

The al-Qaida forces are part of the terrorist network led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed 4,000 people.

Anti-Taliban commander Hazrat Ali said his forces had captured areas in the region south of the eastern city of Jalalabad, recently vacated by al-Qaida fighters.

“We have taken some areas which they left around Tora Bora,” Ali said. “They pulled out from these areas without a fight.” He added that his troops would not launch a final assault against Tora Bora for fear of being struck by U.S. bombs targeting the region.

The fight for Kandahar

In southern Afghanistan, three U.S. special forces soldiers were killed today and at least 19 injured by an errant U.S. bomb. A B-52 bomber, intending to target enemy Taliban forces, dropped a 2,000 pound bomb too close to opposition forces and their American advisers north of Kandahar. Five Afghans fighting with the opposition were also killed.

Anti-Taliban Pashtun tribesman today pushed toward Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, but retreated from the city’s airport when they encountered fierce resistance. U.S. warplanes are continuing intense airstrikes on Taliban and al-Qaida positions around Kandahar.

Pashtun tribal chief Hamid Karzai, selected at the Bonn meeting to head the post-Taliban Afghan government, told Reuters his forces are on the outskirts of Kandahar, and that he has been negotiating a possible surrender with some Taliban defenders.

“We are continuing our movement toward Kandahar and let’s hope we can be there as soon as possible,” Karzai said. “Some Taliban officials are calling us. We’re trying to give them as much time as possible. We want to prevent bloodshed.”

Rumsfeld would not rule out the intervention of U.S. ground troops in the fight for Kandahar. He predicted, however, that the southern city would fall without the direct help of U.S. Marines stationed at a desert camp 55 miles southwest of the Taliban’s spiritual capital.

The 1,300 Marines, who have been building a forward operating base since they arrived at the desert airstrip Nov. 25, have not had any engagement with al-Qaida or Taliban forces, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said.

The Marines are beginning to move into an offensive phase of military operations, according to Maj. James Parrington, executive officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit’s 15th Battalion Landing Team 1. They are supporting Afghan opposition groups fighting for Kandahar by cutting off communications and roads leading to the city.

The Marines, aided by Australian and other allied troops, are also responsible for cutting off Taliban escape routes.

Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has repeatedly called on his troops to fight to the death to protect the small portion of land remaining under Taliban control.

According to Stufflebeem, some Taliban fighters are preparing for a protracted fight in Kandahar, while others are fleeing.

Meanwhile, French troops are expected to arrive in Tajikistan Wednesday, just one day after the Afghan neighbor agreed to allow military operations to use an airbase about 30 miles north of the Afghan border.

Some 60 French troops will pass through Tajikistan’s Kulyab airport to get to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Once there, they will assist in rebuilding the city’s airport to support humanitarian aid efforts.

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