Bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs 'holed up in mountains' as Alliance forces increase pressure

War on Terrorism: Resistance
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The Independent Online

The battle intensified yesterday to flush the Taliban and the so-called "Afghan Arabs" – supporters of Osama bin Laden – out of their last remaining pockets in the north, east and south of Afghanistan.

Intelligence information from Pakistan suggested that Mr bin Laden himself might be among more than 1,000 fighters holed up in the remote eastern Tora Bora mountains near Jalalabad. Anti-Taliban commanders in control of the area since last week have vowed to launch an all-out assault to eradicate them.

In Kunduz, in the north, the prospect of a bloodbath by Northern Alliance fighters encircling the city, as well as the continuation of heavy bombardment by US warplanes, appeared to be concentrating at least some Taliban minds on the possibility of an organised surrender.

Meanwhile, in Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home in the south, the situation remained highly confused. Anti-Taliban Pashtun fighters massed outside the city, US aircraft continued to pound away at Taliban morale, and conflicting reports alternately suggested that the Taliban were preparing to leave or that they were stiffening their resolve and issuing draconian edicts to the few civilians left within the city walls.

The end-game to the Afghan conflict was further complicated by the presence of unprecedented numbers of US Special Forces and British SAS commandos on the ground in the south – a deployment which suggested a far greater confidence in intelligence on the whereabouts of Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders but which also raised the prospect of serious American casualties for the first time since the war began on 7 October.

In Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, anti-Taliban commanders said they were preparing for an offensive against more then 1,000 al-Qa'ida fighters holed up in the remote local mountains. Haji Deen Qadir, the newly installed governor of Nangarhar province, appealed over the weekend for US and British military support, saying the "Arabs" had sworn to fight to the death rather than surrender to the anti-Taliban forces.

Mr Qadir said: "There are some Arabs in the White Mountains of Nangarhar province. We need to discuss with the Americans and Europeans because we have no good ammunition and no good artillery so it is difficult for us to get rid of them.''

Mr Qadir's mujahedin fighters peacefully took control of eastern Afghanistan after the Taliban beat a strategic retreat on Wednesday.

Since then, they have been assembling a force close to the village of Tora Bora, the site of a long-standing al-Qa'ida training camp. The Tora Bora camp was struck by cruise missiles on the second day of the bombing attacks. It is very close to the border with Pakistani tribal areas where the Taliban and their supporters have passed freely for years.

Amir Ullah, another mujahedin commander, said: "The mujahedin are facing them in the White Mountains and we are sending in more men and sending ammunition and weapons there.

"Of course there will be a battle. We sent people in, and told them to surrender and put down their guns. They said, 'Either we will stay here or we will kill ourselves.' It will take time because we have so many other priorities, like organising the new government in Nangarhar.''

The Grand Trunk Road from the Pakistani border crossing at the Khyber Pass to Kabul, via Jalalabad, has been open since Thursday, the day after the Taliban withdrew peacefully from the area. But mujahedin commanders report another pocket of Arab resistance in the town of Torgar, close to the main road.

"I will tell you a story to give you an idea,'' said Mr Qadir. "On the northern front, there were six Arabs who were surrounded by the Northern Alliance, and were told to surrender. They were close, about 50 yards away, and they sat down in a circle and each took out a hand grenade.

"They said, 'One, two, three,' and they exploded the grenades and they killed themselves. This was the teaching of Osama, and if the fighting continues, this is what we will face.''

Meanwhile, far to the north in Kunduz, the front line between Northern Alliance forces and the Taliban trapped inside remained almost uncannily quiet, despite the daily US bombing runs and the air of inevitability surrounding the Taliban fighters' fate.

The Northern Alliance claimed it was negotiating with Taliban inside the city for their surrender, but outside observers, including the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, have said they believe a major fight is yet to come.

Dark stories of a Taliban reign of terror inside the city keep leaking out. Refugees fleeing from Kunduz told reporters yesterday that the foreign "volunteers" are in control inside the city, as the Northern Alliance has been claiming for some time. The refugees said the foreigners no longer trusted the Afghan Taliban inside the city not to defect, and had sent them back from the front lines, which were now held entirely by the foreigners.

At the weekend, the Northern Alliance reported that 300 Afghan Taliban trying to defect were massacred by a group of Pakistani volunteers.

Inside the city, the foreigners were said to rule through fear. Northern Alliance soldiers captured in an attack on the city last week were publicly hanged. There have been a lot of hangings, according to refugees fleeing the city – the Taliban want everyone to know they are still in control.

Taliban soldiers were demanding lodging in the houses of civilians inside the city, refugees said.

Nobody expected the Taliban to hold out in the north, a mosaic of ethnic minorities who largely oppose the Taliban, and traditionally the home territory of the Alliance. But as the Alliance made spectacular gains across the country last week, the Taliban fleeing from all directions in the north converged on Kunduz.

The Alliance claims that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 Taliban soldiers in Kunduz; the Americans say there are only 3,000. The Alliance says between 6,000 and 10,000 of those holding the city are "Afghan Arabs", and they, like their counterparts in the east, are said to have vowed to fight to the end.

The Alliance's sensational advance came not through pitched battles, but largely on the back of defections by the Afghan Taliban. A large proportion of the Alliance forces now besieging Kunduz were Taliban a week ago. But it was in Kunduz that the advance ground to a halt.

Buoyed by their victories, the Alliance marched on Kunduz as a liberating army. They didn't even bother to secure the hills around the road into the city. They walked straight into an ambush.

Taliban soldiers opened fire on them with rockets from the roofs of houses lining the road.

Some 50 Alliance soldiers may have been killed, according to one commander, Haji Agha Gul.

Now there is no foolhardy headlong rush for Kunduz. The Northern Alliance claims it is in daily contact with Afghan Taliban leaders inside the city, both by satellite telephone and by envoys who meet secretly in the surrounding mountains.

The Alliance has offered an amnesty for Afghan Taliban who surrender – but insists it "will not deal" with the foreign volunteers, who leaders blame for the murder of Ahmed Shah Masood. The 300 allegedly killed by Pakistani volunteers as they tried to leave Kunduz arranged to defect by satellite phone, according to the Alliance.

There were claims yesterday that Taliban commanders may have agreed to surrender in return for safe passage of the foreign volunteers out of the city.

Alliance commanders all insist that the foreigners will not be massacred, but given a fair trial. They have all got the message now – but less than a week ago, some were happily predicting they would slaughter the foreigners. One Alliance soldier said he would "make kebabs out of the Arabs".