Anti-Taliban forces in mountain battle with bin Laden fighters

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The Independent Online

Anti–Taliban ground troops fought their way into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan today, firing mortars and tanks while US jets bombed hilltops where hundreds of Osama bin Laden loyalists struggled to hold the high ground.

Soldiers fighting for the anti–Taliban Eastern Shura, or council, positioned Soviet–made T–56 tanks on a desert ridge overlooking the village of Tora Bora. The village, 35 miles south-west of Jalalabad, shares its name with an anthill–like cave complex in the White Mountains where bin Laden's al–Qai'da fighters are thought to be hiding.

Beyond the village, Eastern Shura forces advanced up a narrow, forested valley while the tanks shelled the hilltops a mile away. American B–52s dropped up to a half–dozen 250–pound and 500–pound bombs on each pass, sending huge plumes of smoke and dust in the air.

In the distance, jagged, snow–covered mountains marked the border with Pakistan.

"We are trying our best to capture them alive. They are surrounded by us, but they are not surrendering," said Amil Shah, a tribal commander leading the attack. He said he had no reports of casualties on either side.

Shah said al–Qa'ida fighters had fled their mountain caves to avoid being trapped inside them and were concentrated on three or four mountaintops. They were fighting back with small mortars and rocket–propelled grenades, Shah said, but were now exposed to American bombing.

Some of the bombs fell in a valley where Shah said his men were located. He complained that he had no way to communicate with American forces to coordinate their effort.

Shah, who reports to provincial security chief Hazrat Ali, said another group of forces under the provincial defence chief, Mohammed Zaman, were moving into the mountains from a different valley to cut off the only escape route. The mountain passes to Pakistan were snowed in and impassable, he said.

Ali and Zaman have both said they suspect bin Laden is with his fighters in the White Mountains, but could not be sure.

The village of Tora Bora, which means "black dust," lent its name in the 1980s to one of the most well–known anti–Soviet guerrilla bases, which was carved into the side of Ghree Kil mountain with US funding.

Shah said al–Qa'ida fighters were no longer in the cave complex and that his men controlled the valley floor. Local tribesman had also cut off the al–Qa'ida fighters' food and water supply, he said.

"There is no one to help these people ... they are not so powerful," Shah said. "I am sure this area will be under our control in three or four days."

Shah said be believed there were many more al–Qai'da fighters than the estimate of 1,200 offered by Ali and Zaman, based on the amount of resistance his men had met. But he said the 3,000 men mustered by the Eastern Shura, many of them veteran fighters who hid in the mountains during the Soviet occupation, would have no problem defeating al–Qa'ida.