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    ptbyjason Guest

    Al Qaeda Fighters Retreat in Intense Fighting

    By Susan B. Glasser and Molly Moore
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, December 14, 2001; 4:17 PM

    MILAWA, Afghanistan, Dec. 14 Afghan guerrilla commanders said today that Osama bin Laden's remaining fighters had been driven onto a mountain ridge by advancing Afghan ground troops and concentrated U.S. aerial bombardment, setting the stage for what could be a last stand by the accused terrorist's forces.

    Afghan commanders said they had routed the remnants of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization from the caves and other fortified positions they held in the White Mountains and were now trying to dislodge them from the ridge and force them to lower ground. The Afghans cautioned that their foes may seek an escape route through the mountains and across the nearby border with Pakistan.

    The Afghan force, numbering around 2,500, claims to have seized most of al Qaeda's caves and bunkers in the Milawa and Tora Bora valleys. Zahir, a top commander and the son of the region's governor, said the ridge that the holdouts were defending "is their last position in Afghanistan." With that exception, he said, "the places we were aiming to capture, we captured all of them" in an offensive that began Thursday.

    It remained unclear today whether bin Laden was among the al Qaeda holdouts, a contingent of Arabs and other foreign fighters estimated to number between 200 and 700.

    In Washington, President Bush urged patience in the hunt for the man behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. "I don't know whether we're going to get him tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now. . . . But we're going to get him," Bush said. "I don't care, dead or alive either way. It doesn't matter to me."

    Two American soldiers reportedly were wounded in the fighting here today, as U.S. Special Forces continued to arrive at the front to coordinate air strikes and the Afghans' ground assaults. An Afghan soldier quoted by the Associated Press said the two Americans were grazed by al Qaeda machine gun fire. Their injuries did not appear serious he said, and they were taken away from the front lines by truck.

    More than 20 U.S. troops could be seen accompanying truckloads of Afghan fighters up the mountainside toward the front lines today, including one squeezed into a seat next to a top Afghan commander, Hazrat Ali, as their vehicle bounced over the rutted roadway toward the Afghan's front-line command post.

    Mohammad Ali, a 25-year-old soldier, said 12 Americans had accompanied his group of troops on Thursday. "They were coordinating," said Mohammad Ali. "They had weapons but didn't fire."

    One Afghan who participated in an overnight gun battle said at least five American military personnel were with each Afghan unit. "We asked them, 'Why did you come to this place?'" said Asad Yaah. "They said, 'To help you.'"

    Afghan commanders said U.S. forces also were involved in combing through captured al Qaeda positions, including elaborate cave complexes and front-line bunkers.

    "When the mujahadeen capture a place, the Americans go there searching for documents and other things left behind," said Commander Yunas. In most places, he said, the al Qaeda forces "have left all their equipment, all their things."

    Zahir said the Afghans had captured several pieces of heavy weaponry in the offensive, including six computerized mortars, two BM-12s and two antiaircraft machine guns.

    The Afghan commanders continued to negotiate by radio with al Qaeda troops who claimed they wanted to surrender, but there appeared to be no final deal by day's end, and American bombing raids continued into the night.

    Around 2 p.m. today, Ali conferred by radio with some bin Laden fighters over an offer to surrender unconditionally, a change from their previous demand that they would turn over their weapons only if they were placed in U.N. custody.

    Ali quickly replied that he would accept an unconditional surrender, which has been a constant demand of U.S. military officials, but he told reporters that he doubted the Americans would go for any deal with al Qaeda. "In my opinion," he said, "the Americans want to kill them." Just after the purported surrender offer, al Qaeda gunfire raked the command post where Ali was standing.

    Later this afternoon, one of the bin Laden fighters was heard talking by radio with the Afghans, and he did not seem interested in surrendering. "I will continue jihad even after my death," said the voice on the radio, speaking in Arabic. "We're not going to surrender here. We have medicine; we have food. We're fine."

    Al Qaeda's retreat to its current position high in the mountains began Thursday afternoon, according to field commanders. "Yesterday at 3 p.m., many Arabs left their positions and retreated, and the mujahadeen took them over," Yunas said.

    Since then, the battle has concentrated on trying to drive them to lower ground.

    The ridge that al Qaeda is now defending is a three-hour walk through the Milawa mountains from Ali's command post. On the other side of the peak, according to field commanders and soldiers, lies a heavily forested mountain plain offering numerous places to hide for any retreating al Qaeda fighters.

    "Ten thousand people could go into that forest and you could never find them," said Zahir, acknowledging that it was impossible to cut off every route into Pakistan from there. "It's difficult to control the whole area, to surround them completely. It's a large area, it's easy for them to escape."

    But Ali said he had stationed his fighters on the other side of the mountains, cutting off the routes to Pakistan. "They cannot escape," he insisted. "The mujahadeen have blocked the road." U.S. Special Forces are also reportedly patrolling near the Pakistan border to prevent any escape.

    "Al Qaeda is finished in Milawa and Tora Bora," Ali declared. "We've got them surrounded." Ali said he believed his forces had located the cave where bin Laden might be hiding, and that they planned to clear and search the area.

    Minutes after Ali made that remark, al Qaeda provided a pointed reminder that it has yet to be defeated. As Ali spoke to reporters while perched atop a bunker, a hail of automatic rifle fire and an artillery round whizzed past, narrowly missing the commander and the dozens of others gathered around him.

    Other indications of a fight still very much in progress were abundant throughout an afternoon at the front. As American bombers pummeled the ridge during Ali's impromptu press briefing, bringing a broad smile to the commander's face, the sounds of small arms fire, mortar rounds and artillery regularly echoed through the peaks.

    Commanders repeated their frequent complaint that U.S. bombs frequently have missed their targets; overall, they have reported 20 or more Afghan fighters killed by American friendly fire since fighting around Tora Bora began early last week. On Thursday, according to field commander Rais Khan, three or four more fighters were injured when bombs went astray.

    "Sometimes when we capture bunkers, we see the bomb dropped next to the bunker and the bunker was not hit," Yunas said.

    To illustrate, he pointed across the khaki-colored hillside below the Afghan front-line command post to an untouched square bunker carved into the rocky terrain and a similar-sized bomb crater surrounded by charred tree stumps about 50 yards away.

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