Hopes of finding bin Laden fade as fighters flee

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The Independent Online

Mujahedin fightersand American bombers were pursuing the fleeing remnants of al-Qa'ida in the White Mountains of Afghanistan yesterday, as hopes of finding Osama bin Laden dwindled.

Several hundred al-Qa'ida members are still holding out in the upper ridges of the Tora Bora valley, after they were finally driven out of their cave strongholds on Monday, local commanders say. They are cut off from their supplies of food and ammunition, and mujahedin leaders insist that it is only a matter of time before they are captured, killed or driven across the rugged and porous border into Pakistan.

Haji Zahir, one of the three senior frontline commanders, said: "There are still a few people in the Tora Bora area. But they have lost their confidence, they have no supplies, and they are not in a position to keep fighting."

At the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said that US and British special forces had joined the mujahedin in searching the cave networks. "There are still isolated pockets of al-Qa'ida fighting in this area, so we're not done yet," he said.

The first al-Qa'ida prisoners were put on public display yesterday, as the mujahedin began trying to identify senior members of the organisation. Afghan soldiers returning from the front described abandoned caves containing documents, computers, CD-Roms and weapons, but journalists were prevented from travelling to the battlefield.

Foreign special forces soldiers were seen travelling back from the direction of the caves, and it is likely that the area will remain closed until it has been picked clean of intelligence material about al-Qa'ida and its leaders. But the few reports about the whereabouts of Mr bin Laden suggest that, if he ever was in the Tora Bora area, he left days ago. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, told reporters as he flew to Brussels yesterday: "Until we catch him – which we will – we won't know precisely where he's been."

Mujahedin commanders have been issued with American digital photographs of key al-Qa'ida suspects to help them identify important prisoners. They have already interrogated one senior Yemeni, Abdullah Hamad, and suspect that they have another man on the US wanted list, Abu Jafar al-Jaza'in, also known as Omar Chaabani.

According to Mr Hamad, Mr bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area in the middle of November, at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Two other al-Qa'ida members said that they saw him on 13 November, four days before the fast.

The Americans said yesterday that they had five prisoners in custody from Afghanistan, who had been taken to the USS Peleliu, a helicopter assault ship in the region. A Defence Department spokesman Richard McGraw refused to identify them, but the Australian government said that one was David Hicks, a 26-year-old Australian seized while fighting with the Taliban.

American planes continued to fly over the White Mountains yesterday, but with much less frequency than in the previous two weeks. Occasional distant bomb explosions could be heard from the direction of the highest peaks close to the Pakistan border.

A source close to the mujahedin said yesterday that British SAS troops has been working with Zaman Gamsharik, another Afghan commander, providing laser targeting for American bombs.

It emerged yesterday that investigators had taken DNA samples from Mr bin Laden's family to help identify the al-Qa'ida leader if he is captured or his body recovered. They are said to have "quietly co-operated" with officials in the US to provide the samples. Twenty-one members of Mr bin Laden's family have been living in the US although it is believed that all but one of them returned to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of 11 September.

Officials in Washington believe some of Mr bin Laden's followers may claim reports of their leader's capture or killing are false. Popular rumour says he has several body doubles.

DNA identification will not be straightforward, however, as Mr bin Laden has no full brothers or sisters and investigators do not believe they have found a sample of his own DNA. His father had at least 50 children, but had no other children with Mr bin Laden's mother, meaning investigators will have to take DNA from as many of his siblings as possible to be sure of a positive match.

Adil Najam, professor of international relations at Boston University, told USA Today: "We've got to stop him from becoming Elvis, with sightings here and there."