US pounds al-Qa'ida as surrender deal fails

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The Independent Online

Mujahdein forces fighting alongside American special forces soldiers, and backed by intensive US air bombardment, attacked the mountain fortresses of Tora Bora in strength yesterday after the collapse of two days of negotiations aimed at persuading the remaining al-Qa'ida members to surrender.

Mujahdein forces fighting alongside American special forces soldiers, and backed by intensive US air bombardment, attacked the mountain fortresses of Tora Bora in strength yesterday after the collapse of two days of negotiations aimed at persuading the remaining al-Qa'ida members to surrender.

"There will be no more negotiations,'' said Haji Zaman, one of the three main Mujahedin commanders. "The attack begins now.''

The combined assault by three warlords commanding about 1,000 troops could be the final effort to oust the followers of Osama bin Laden from their last Afghan stronghold.

However, Eid, the Muslim festival that celebrates the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, will take place this weekend and during the three-day celebration mujahedin forces will be reluctant to fight.

"Most of the soldiers will go home to their families for Eid,'' said Faizal Abdullah, a frontline mujahedin soldier. If that is the case and the latest attack does not force the al-Qa'ida out of their caves and bunkers, the followers of Osama bin Laden are likely to emerge from their shelters and retake hard-won ground. A military expert said: "The al-Qa'ida are extremely efficient fighters. Of course they will take advantage of Eid to regain territory.''

The cost of the battle for Tora Bora can be seen at a little village at the head of the Melawa valley. The hamlet, a much fought over battlefield, has a handful of houses, a score or so of inhabitants and three very large graveyards. A green, white and black Afghan flag snaps in freezing wind over the largest graveyard. "There are many more dead here than living,'' said Haji Anargul, a veteran of Afghanistan's many conflicts. "The Arabs will never surrender. There are two possibilities, either they will fight to the last, or they will escape to Pakistan.''

Commander Anargul and his 300 fighters are playing a support role in the attack taking place in the mountains. They won a battle on Wednesday 500 metres up the Melawa valley, killing half a dozen al-Qa'ida members and driving the rest back up the mountain.

Our conversation is punctuated by huge explosions every 10 minutes or so as American planes bombard the al-Qa'ida hideouts. The putter of small arms and machine-gun fire, muted by distance, is no more than aural wallpaper.

He has, however, little regard for foreign troops. About 40 British SAS and 60 US special forces are said to be operating with the mujahedin on the mountainsides. "I have seen the foreign troops but not in action,'' he said. "But if they fight with al-Qa'ida they will not be successful because they don't know the countryside.''

Another commander, Aziz Ullah, 33, was equally dismissive of the vaunted special forces. "They are not practical fighters,'' he said. "They don't have any information or experience of the area. The only people who know this place well are the ones who have lived here all their lives.'' But Commander Ullah believes the al-Qa'ida fighters are resigned to their fate. He shows off the diary of an enemy soldier, found after the previous day's battle. It begins: "When I die please put me in a grave wherever I fall.''

The villagers in the Tora Bora area are finding the battle a mixed blessing. Apart from the danger of misdirected US bombs, they complain that the massive bombardment has disrupted their sources of water and devastated the forests from which they make a living by selling timber.

On the other hand, the debris of war is a bonanza of scrap metal. Along the roads of Tora Bora, villagers can be seen tottering up the steep paths with huge loads of exploded bomb casings strapped to their backs. The metal is worth 15 rupees a kilo in Jalalabad, from whence it is shipped to Pakistan to be melted down and reused.

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