Bin Laden 'is in White Mountains cave stronghold'

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The Independent Online

American officials have secretly met mujahedin leaders in Jalalabad to co-ordinate an attack against Osama bin Laden's suspected hideout in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, according to a senior commander.

Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, the chief of defence for the ruling council of Nangarhar province, said he is 90 per cent sure that Mr bin Laden is in the Tora Bora area of the White Mountains, 35 miles south of Jalalabad. He confirmed that he had met with "American representatives'' and that he is sharing intelligence with them on the al-Qa'ida leader and up to 2,000 guerrillas believed to be holed up in a heavily defended cave complex.

Mr bin Laden's presence in the White Mountains has been rumoured since the Taliban withdrew from Jalalabad a fortnight ago, but the job of tracking him down appears to have gathered momentum in the past few days.

This week the Pentagon confirmed for the first time that it is focusing its hunt for Mr bin Laden and the Taliban leadership on Tora Bora, as well as on the southern city of Kandahar. "These are the places that we have been led to pay very close attention to,'' General Tommy Franks, the commander of US military operations in Afghanistan, said on Tuesday.

''Of course I have provided them with these reports,'' Commander Zaman told The Independent in Jalalabad last night. "Up until noon today I was 70 per cent sure of his existence there, but by this evening I am 90 per cent sure. The remaining 10 per cent will be confirmed when I speak with one of my men who has gone there to see with his own eyes.''

Commander Zaman confirmed that he had had face-to-face meetings with Americans but refused to disclose details. "I can only tell you that the subject is the elimination of the al-Qa'ida organisations and Osama bin Laden, and the only decision we have made is that we will eliminate them.''

Last night he met with tribal leaders from the Salyman Khail district that includes Tora Bora, a remote network of caves with its own electricity and ventilation that is virtually impervious to conventional attack. Elders of three tribal groups have been instructed to try to negotiate the surrender of the so-called "Arabs'', as the non-Afghan followers of Mr bin Laden are called.

The elders will be accompanied by Commander Zaman's men, but nobody in Jalalabad expects the "Arabs" to accept any compromise.

''This is the custom of the Pashtun people,'' Commander Zaman said. "It would be easier if we could solve the problem by consultation, but if they don't accept that, we will have to mount a military attack.''

The Tora Bora caves extend 350 yards into a mountainside in a narrow valley concealed by forest. From the air, they are invisible, and the narrow passes are easily defended against land attack. Mujahedin commanders estimate that at least 4,000 well-trained men would be needed to launch an assault.

A week ago local people reported seeing a foreign man in Khaki fatigues in an office used by an Afghan drugs-control organisation, but the reports remain unconfirmed; and although the presence of American military representatives in Jalalabad has been rumoured for some time, they have remained invisible to the general population.