Tora Bora caves 'under control'

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The Independent Online

Most of the Tora Bora caves once occupied by al–Qa'ida forces in eastern Afghanistan have been cleaned out and only a few remain to be excavated, Afghan militia commanders said today.

US officials have said they believe the caves may contain valuable information about Osama bin Laden's al­Qa'ida network and that troops would be deployed soon to dig out those that collapsed under US bombing. Some US special operations personnel were seen in the area last week examining documents.

But Mohammed Zaman, the defence chief for Nangarhar province, said his men are unearthing collapsed caves and that additional US soldiers are not needed.

"This is our job and we have started doing it already," Zaman said at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. "This is our country and we don't need American soldiers here."

Zaman was one of three militia leaders who led Afghan ground troops ­ backed by US aircraft and special operations forces ­ in the battle for the fortified mountains around a cave complex known as Tora Bora. The Afghans captured al­Qa'ida's last stronghold in the region on 16 December, but so far journalists have been forbidden from visiting the site.

Kalan Mir, a senior front­line commander and the brother of provincial security chief Hazrat Ali, said all the caves that were not collapsed have been emptied.

"We have searched all the caves and we have found a lot of documents, computers and radios. There was also a large amount of ammunition," Mir said. He refused to answer any questions regarding a potential US deployment of troops, even though his men have so far been responsible for protecting all US special operations personnel in the area.

Both Zaman and Mir said there had been no fighting in the last five days and no new al­Qa'ida prisoners have been taken.

While Zaman said there was no need to send US combat troops to eastern Afghanistan, he said UN peacekeepers would be welcome.

"From the beginning I told a lot of people that if you want peace in Afghanistan, you must send peacekeepers," Zaman said. "I will help them, if they need my help."

Zaman said he welcomed the new government in Kabul, but that he didn't know what role he may be asked to play. He said many questions, such as who will appoint the new administration in Jalalabad, had yet to be worked out.

"We are starting from the beginning, from zero," he said.

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