Alliance launches attack on al-Qa'ida stronghold

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Anti–Taliban forces launched a three–pronged attack on Monday on eastern Afghanistan's White Mountains, working their way up mountains trails in small groups as tanks pounded positions of Osama bin Laden's fighters.

Except for a single air raid at 7 am, US warplanes were generally absent, except for an occasional flyover by jet fighters. Hafta Gul, a senior officer in the Eastern Shura's militia, said the planes were not bombing to avoid hitting anti–Taliban fighters on the ground.

"At 1:30 pm, we started the attack. We started attacking from three sides," Mr Gul said. He said each side was led by one of the three main militia forces that make up the eastern alliance, also known as the Eastern Shura, or council.

More than 1,000 of bin Laden's fighters are believed to be in two valleys and surrounding ridges in the White Mountains, defending them with 82mm mortars and heavy machine guns. Eastern alliance forces returned fire with T–55 tanks.

The objective is to capture the Milawa valley and the ridge overlooking the Tora Bora valley. Both valleys are full of dozens of caves, where al–Qaida fighters take shelter during US air raids.

Haji Zahir, the son of provincial governor Abdul Qadir and one of the three militia commanders, said his men would use the same guerrilla tactics against al–Qa'ida that they used to fight the Soviet army during the 1980s. Only this time instead of defending the area collectively known as Tora Bora, this time they are attacking it.

Mr Zahir said he hoped to route the al–Qaida force – most of whom are from Pakistan, Arab countries or from other parts of Central Asia – quickly, but acknowledged that the defenses and caves would be difficult to overcome. He said eastern alliance forces would not stop fighting until al–Qaida surrenders or fight to the death, which they have pledged to do.

There have been several reported sighting of bin Laden in the White Mountains and eastern alliance commanders are confident that his is still with his men. But Mr Zahir admitted that there had been no firm evidence of his presence in the Tora Bora area since Friday.