Osama bin Laden has abandoned his entourage of thousands of specially trained fighters and is now on the run – apparently on horseback – with a few men near the eastern city of Jalalabad, a senior anti-Taliban commander said yesterday.
The US manhunt for Mr bin Laden is being aided by specialised surveillance aircraft which can detect an individual's body heat from 30 miles away and by high-resolution spy satellite imagery. As many as 800 US special forces are also deployed in the hunt.
Hazrat Ali, now the security chief in Jalalabad, said trusted informants had told him that Mr bin Laden was seen at al-Qa'ida's mountain bolthole of Tora Bora as recently as three days ago.
"He is riding at night on horseback, during the days he stays in caves," said Mr Ali. "He goes to a different place every night." There was no way of confirming the claims, however.
In another powerful strike at the leadership of al-Qa'ida, it was also reported yesterday that two more senior members of the organisation have been killed in US bombing raids. Tariq Anwar and Muhammad Salah, of the militant Islamist group al-Jihad, were struck in the Afghan city of Khost according to the London-based paper al-Hayat.
The men were named by President George Bush as key members of al-Qa'ida in September. Their assets were frozen in the first wave of US measures against Mr bin Laden's financial network.
Anwar is said to have organised the special operations of the terrorist network. Salah has been blamed for organising the bombings of US embassies in east Africa in 1998.
Rumours have been rife for days that Mr bin Laden is hiding in the jagged ridges of the area near the al-Qa'ida base at Tora Bora, 40 miles southwest of Jalalabad. According to eyewitness accounts, Mr bin Laden moved about 10 days ago from Jalalabad to the relative safety of the mountain fortress which is said to be impregnable.
The CIA is aware of his likely whereabouts, say German and Pakistani security officials. Taliban deserters relayed the information via UN agencies a week ago, the German television station ARD reported. US planes have been bombing the mountain redoubt for weeks.
The militia commander Mr Ali also claimed that about 500 to 600 Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters are holed up in Tora Bora. He said he used the base when he was a mujahedin commander fighting the Soviet army, and that it was virtually impossible to capture.
Mr Ali said Mr bin Laden had more than 3,000 specially trained fighters to protect him before the bombing in Afghanistan began, but that he was now moving around the mountains with just a few men.
"We are Afghans, and Afghan people do not want foreigners in our country. When the villagers see bin Laden, they tell us," Mr Ali said. He added that if his men captured Mr bin Laden, they would turn him over to international authorities to stand trial.
He claimed that almost everyone in the country knows of the $25m reward for information leading to Mr bin Laden's capture.
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, said yesterday that he did not believe the al-Qa'ida leader had managed to slip across the border into Pakistan.
"To the best of my knowledge, bin Laden has not crossed into Pakistan, and I don't know his whereabouts," Gen Musharraf told journalists after a meeting with European Union officials. He said Pakistan had sought the co-operation of tribal leaders to ensure that Mr bin Laden does not sneak into the country.Reuse content