Canadian and American forces have taken samples from 24 bodies at a mass grave in Tora Bora to try to discover whether Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants were killed there at the end of last year.
Another 30 bodies are thought to be entombed in a sealed cave complex, which the coalition forces were unable to enter despite trying to blast their way through.
The Independent revealed yesterday that the operation, codenamed Torii, was searching through the Tora Bora mountains to gather scientific clues that could prove Mr Bin Laden had died. This would allow the American government to end Operation Enduring Freedom.
While searching for the caves, the allied soldiers found a burial mound, near the village of Alikhel, which has become a shrine for pilgrims. Twenty-three of the bodies were found at the mound, and one in a shallow grave next to a bunker.
But attempts failed to force entry into four separate caves, including one in which about 30 al-Qai'da fighters are thought to have hidden while under attack on 15 December last year.
Hair samples were taken from the corpses by members of the US army's Criminal Investigation Department before they were reburied. They have been sent to Washington for analysis, with the results expected to take several weeks.
Relations of Mr Bin Laden have given DNA samples to the American authorities and the samples will be matched against those. Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stagran, the Canadian officer in charge, disclosed last night that villagers had spoken of a "very big man who was buried in a special ceremony with his body booby-trapped". But none of the bodies discovered during the operation matches the 6ft 5in frame of Mr Bin Laden, Col Stagran said. "We were hoping the big guy was there, and I am still hopeful," he said. "But it does not look particularly realistic."
Among the bodies the allies hope to find is Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad, who is known to have accompanied Mr Bin Laden during the Tora Bora campaign.
Local people told allied soldiers that Taliban officials had instructed them to carry bodies from the mountains during the Tora Bora offensive and bury them on the 130ft mound. About 1,000 people from Afghanistan and Pakistan turned up for the ceremony on 30 December. The cemetery has been decorated with the white flag of the Taliban and the fundamentalist Hizb-i-Islami party.Reuse content