U.S. warplanes intensified bombardments on the rugged Tora Bora area in northeastern Afghanistan after intelligence reports indicated leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist organization may be hiding there, the Pentagon said.
“We have heard anecdotal reports that this is an area where Osama bin Laden has been using some of his wealth to buy local village chieftans’ support,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
Tora Bora is located south of the eastern city of Jalalabad and is home to the White Mountains.
Airborne radio broadcasts encouraging people to help root out al-Qaida are also being conducted in the Tora Bora area. The network, along with bin Laden, is suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
According to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press, 58 people were killed in a strike on a suspected al-Qaida mountain hideout in the eastern Tora Bora region.
Stufflebeem was skeptical of news reports from the Jalalabad area claiming that U.S. bombs were killing civilians.
“I don’t have any reports of any villages being struck,” Stufflebeem said. “The only reports I have are that all our weapons have been on target. I find that a little bit suspect, that villages are being flattened.”
Over the weekend, villagers living in the region south of Jalalabad claimed that air raids had killed more than 100 civilians and flattened many homes. Anti-Taliban officials said U.S. Bombs have killed some of their own fighters in the same region.
Meanwhile, fighters loyal to anti-Taliban Pashtun commander Gul Agha, former governor of Kandahar, fought their way into the Kandahar airport compound but were then pushed back by Taliban forces defending the last area under Taliban control.
Agha’s forces have been advancing toward the southern city, considered the Taliban’s spiritual capital, from the south while anti-Taliban troops led by Hamid Karzai, former deputy foreign minister, have been approaching from the north.
The 1,000 U.S. Marines stationed at a desert airstrip some 70 miles southwest of Kandahar have not joined the fight against Taliban fighters defending the city. The Marine-controlled airstrip is currently being used to receive shipments of armored vehicles and antitank weapons flown in by U.S. cargo aircraft.
Security concerns in North prompt U.N. withdrawal
In northern Afghanistan, the United Nations pulled its staff out of Mazar-e-Sharif after receiving reports of factional fighting there.
“We have observations of sporadic fighting and shooting in the city, we don’t have any information on who is fighting whom,” U.N. spokesman Khaled Mansour told a news conference in Kabul. “We have heard about factional fighting.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees also expressed concern over rising tensions near Peshawar on Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan, where thousands of Afghan refugees are living among the mostly Pashtun population.
The Northern Alliance, mostly made up of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, is a loosely organized coalition of factions led by different warlords who have a history of warring with one another.
Fearing reprisals against ethnic Tajik and Uzbek refugees for last week’s killing of pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters during the prison revolt near Mazar-e-Sharif, the UNHCR plans to relocate non-Pashtun refugees from the big Jallozai camp near Peshawar to a new site in the Kurram tribal area, where there is little sympathy for the Taliban.