Afghan workers repair Jalalabad airport for US planes

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Workers filled in bomb craters and swept the runway at Jalalabad's airport in northeastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, saying they were under orders from US officials to complete the job in 72 hours.

The eastern city is a base in the search for fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden, who some people think may be hiding in the White Mountains south of here.

Anti­Taliban forces in Nangarhar province do not have any aircraft of their own, but US helicopters have landed at the airport over the last three nights. Workers have assembled a 1.9­metre satellite communications dish near the control tower.

"The Americans told our engineer that they want the runway repaired and cleared within 72 hours," said Zameer Alam, who was overseeing workers filling in a crater left by US bombs in early October.

He said the United States wanted to begin landing planes as early as Thursday night.

Guards said American servicemen unloaded boxes for fighters loyal to Hazrat Ali, the provincial security chief. They did not know what was in the boxes.

Both Ali and Pentagon officials have said about 20 US special operations troops are on the ground in Nangarhar province to search for bin Laden and his men, suspected to be hiding in the White Mountains along the border with Pakistan. US officials say the special forces are working with local Afghans to collect information.

A top Pentagon official, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, said on Monday that US special forces are not conducting a cave­to­cave search for bin Laden, but rather helping to locate bombing targets.

"This is an area that is pretty well­known" to US military planners as "an area where Taliban and al­Qa'ida forces have been and in numbers," he said.

Ali said on Monday that he was ready to lay siege to the mountainous Tora Bora cave hideout where hundreds of al­Qa'ida members – perhaps even bin Laden himself – are thought to be holed up.

Ali said he sent a delegation of elders from Jalalabad to negotiate the surrender of non­Afghan fighters hiding in the mountains. Another group of elders, claiming to represent the fighters, brought back a response – reputedly from bin Laden, he said.

"They gave a message to our elders from Osama bin Laden: 'I don't want to fight the (Muslim forces), but if I find some foreign troops, I must fight them,"' Ali said.

He could not vouch for the veracity of the elders' claim to represent bin Laden.

Backed by a resolution from the Eastern Shura, or council, which controls the Jalalabad area, Ali said he had 1,500 men ready to enter the White Mountains to drive out the non­Afghans – primarily Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks – who have been fighting with al­Qa'ida and the Taliban.

"That is our aim, to fight the terrorists in that area. It is the last and strongest al­Qa'ida base left in our country," Ali said. He said the assault could begin in the next few days.