British forces to take part in assault on cave complex

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British special forces will play a major role in an impending attack on the Tora Bora area as the hunt for Osama bin Laden intensifies.

Defence officials in Washington and London are convinced that the White Mountains area of Nangarhar province south of Jalalabad is the most likely place for the al-Qai'da leader to be hiding.

Mr bin Laden is suspected of having moved north-east, and closer to the Pakistani border, from the Kandahar area as opposition forces tightened the siege on the Taliban stronghold.

The attack on Tora Bora will be a joint British and US operation. However, it is British troops who have been advising their American counterparts after a series of successful operations in hill tunnels.

Around 150 soldiers of the SAS and SBS are working in south and east Afghanistan, mostly autonomously from the Americans. Another half-squadron of SAS soldiers ­ around 30 men ­ is expected in the next 48 hours.

Although US commanders, led by General Tommy Franks, in charge of Operation Enduring Freedom, are unwilling to see large-scale regular British and other coalition forces on the ground, they have asked for additional special forces. According to defence sources, the British have consistently out-performed the Americans in tracking al-Qai'da and Taliban fighters in flight, and in engaging and neutralising them.

Four members of the SAS have already been injured in what is described as the biggest British special forces attack since the Falklands war. A full Sabre squadron of around 60 men attacked an al-Qai'da cave complex south-east of Kandahar, which resulted in 18 of the enemy being killed and another 17 taken prisoner.

Among the British injured was a regimental sergeant-major whose father had served in the Falklands.

Another trooper, shot in the leg, is being treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. It is feared his leg may have to be amputated.

The al-Qai'da bolt-hole was spotted by RAF Nimrod planes, which have proved more effective than their American counterparts for intelligence-gathering. The SAS squadron stormed through the entrance to the cave complex before coming under fire from heavy-calibre AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The trooper badly injured, a 26-year-old married man, was one of the first to fall. The other three are said to have received comparatively minor injuries. The lead squadron was joined by two more support ones as the complex was finally made secure.

Much of the Tora Bora underground complex was built with CIA money during the mujahedin war against the Russians. During their 10 years in Afghanistan, the Soviet army never managed to penetrate the Tora Bora complex fully, but the intelligence they gleaned has been passed to British and American defence officials. One advantage the US and Britain have is advanced technology that means heat-seeking sensors are now able to detect men inside caves.