Besieged Taliban may be shielding bin Laden

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The Independent Online

US and Afghan commanders involved in Operation Anaconda are increasingly convinced that senior Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership may be taking refuge in the besieged mountains Shah-i-Kot. It is possible that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar Mohammad are among them.

The news comes as it emerged yesterday that up to 100 Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters were killed on Wednesday alone, as Western and allied forces tightened their grip on the encircled rebels.

Until now, the Pentagon has portrayed the fightersholding out at altitudes of up to 12,000ft as hardened. But there is growing view that they are showing such tenacity because of who they are protecting.

The governor of eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province, Taj Muhammad Wardak, told The New York Times that US commanders had told him there was a chance that Mr bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were among those hiding in the frozen mountains where up to 400 fighters have been killed by the US operation.

"I'd say there is a 15 to 20 per cent chance that Osama bin Laden is there, or if not him, Ayman al-Zawahiri," said Mr Wardak, a US citizen who returned to Afghanistan after more than a decade to take up the post of regional governor. Asked if his opinion was shared by the US commander, he replied: "If they didn't think so, I wouldn't be saying it."

The besieged Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters are encircled by around 2,000 Western and allied troops, including 1,100 US soldiers and special forces.

As the battle centred on the village of Shah-i-Kot, south of Gardez, yesterday entered its sixth day, US warplanes continued to bomb Taliban and al-Qa'ida positions.

Major Brian Hilferty said that while 1,000 Taliban and al-Qa'ida may have started the fight, around half of that number had now been killed. "In fighting on Wednesday, we estimate we killed 100,'' he said.

"We might have killed non-combatants. But they certainly went in there knowing what they were going into. We have no indication, we haven't seen little kids in a yard and we've blown it up, or women walking around and then shot."

The Afghan commander Abdul Muteen, who has about 135 fighters in the Afghan force of about 800, said all possible rebel reinforcement routes had now been sealed and fighters were beginning to enter tunnel systems believed to hold Taliban and al-Qa'ida. "This war is going to meet its end in a very short time," he claimed.

Yesterday, Europe's senior diplomat in the region said that beefing up the 5,000-strong international peacekeeping mission may be the only way to prevent the country disintegrating into factional conflict. Klaus Klaiber, the EU's special representative to Afghanistan, said that extending the UN mandate for the force to cover regional capitals should be "considered seriously".

At present the peacekeepers' mission is restricted to the national capital, Kabul.

¿ Afghanistan's last king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, has described the US-led war on terror as "stupid and useless", and called for its immediate end, according to the Turin daily La Stampa. The 87-year-old former monarch, who has lived in Rome since he was ousted in 1973, is expected to return to Kabul in the near future.