Tora Bora 'falls', but where is bin Laden?

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The Independent Online

After nine weeks of siege, Afghan tribal leaders today claimed victory over the last major stand of al-Qa'ida guerrillas in the Tora Bora area, but US officials said the fighting wasn't over.

With hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters killed and others on the run, but there was no sign of Osama bin Laden: was he dead, fleeing, holed up deep in one of the region's thousands of caves? Or had he been there at all?

Commanders Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman came down from the rugged cliffsides to declare they commanded all of the caves, a boast impossible to verify. They said at least 200 Taliban were killed and they would be buried tomorrow. Many others were believed to be fleeing toward the nearby Pakistan border.

"This is the last day of al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan," Zaman proclaimed.

But The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, on a brief visit to Afghanistan, told reporters "a fierce battle" was continuing.

After a five-hour lull in US airstrikes, at least two bombs fell on the area and an AC-130 gunship was hammering nighttime targets with its howitzer, although the action sounded further away, as if the planes were going after fleeing forces.

"There are people trying to escape and people trying to run them down," Rumsfeld said.

He said Afghan leaders told him that in addition to the dead, they had captured 11 al-Qa'ida fighters and about 2,000 were trying to flee toward the nearby Pakistan border. There also were reports that one senior al-Qu'ida leader had been captured, although Rumsfeld would not identify him.

US Army General Tommy Franks said: "They are making progress, but I think it's accurate to say that it's going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control.

"It's physically a matter of digging out the al-Qaida from these caves and tunnels. It's a matter of inching our way forward up the sides of these canyons and physically going into each one of these bunkers and caves."