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    Angry U.S. Fails to Catch Bin Laden as Stronghold Falls

    By Sebastian Alison and Alan Elsner

    TORA BORA, Afghanistan/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Afghan forces destroyed the last bastion of the al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan on Sunday but did not find Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant who stands accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

    U.S. forces and their allies were scouring the country for the man President Bush wants dead or alive and top officials vowed to catch him sooner or later.

    Backed by overwhelming U.S. air power and British and American commandos on the ground, Afghan fighters overran the mountain redoubt of Tora Bora which is riddled with caves and tunnels, where hundreds of bin Laden's toughest al Qaeda loyalists made their last stand.

    ``We've destroyed al Qaeda in Afghanistan and we have ended the role of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist activity,'' said Secretary of State Colin Powell on NBC's ``Meet the Press.''

    He said bin Laden's effectiveness in Afghanistan had been destroyed but the man himself remained at large.

    ``We have no reason to believe that he has been either killed or captured. We don't know where he is,'' Powell said.

    ``We of course want Osama bin Laden, and as President Bush said, we will get him. Whether we get him this week, next week, whether it takes us one year or two years, we will bring him to justice or justice will be brought to him,'' he said.

    National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said bin Laden was on the run.

    ``The amount of territory in which he can operate is shrinking. We also know that he is on the run,'' she said on CNN's ``Late Edition.''

    ``They know the area, but they should know that there is no place to hide,'' she said.

    The United States last Thursday released a videotape in which bin Laden said the results of the Sept. 11 attacks which destroyed New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon exceeded his expectations. The death toll from the attacks has been revised down to nearly 3,300.


    In a Newsweek poll, 62 percent of respondents said the U.S. military effort would not be a success if bin Laden and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is also at large, were not captured or killed.

    Powell said intelligence information on bin Laden remained confusing and contradictory. There have been unconfirmed reports for several days that he may have slipped across the border into Pakistan.

    ``There's some information that suggests he might still be there, and he might have gotten across the border. We don't know. But you can be sure he is under hot pursuit,'' Powell said.

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, said he thought there might still be more fighting to come in Tora Bora as the U.S. and its allies hunted down militants trying to escape.

    He told troops and reporters at the Bagram airbase north of Kabul: ``There are people trying to escape but that gets harder as night falls. The question is does that mean it's almost over in that area and I doubt it.''

    Rumsfeld held talks with Hamid Karzai, head of an interim Afghan government due to take power on Dec. 22.

    ``From the very beginning, we have tried to make it clear that our operation here was not against Afghanistan, against the people, against a religion. It was against terrorism,'' Rumsfeld told Karzai as they met in a wrecked Soviet-era aircraft hangar.

    The Karzai government will try to rebuild a nation devastated by 20 years of war. The previous Taliban rulers, who imposed a form of unbending, ultra-conservative Islam on the nation and offered bin Laden and his fighters a safe haven, were driven out by the U.S.-led offensive.

    The former Taliban finance minister Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim said on Sunday the hard-line militia's rule had ended and it would not oppose a ``stable Islamic'' government, an Afghan news agency reported.

    ``If a stable Islamic government is established in Afghanistan, then we don't intend to launch any action against it,'' he told the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) from an unknown location inside Afghanistan.


    The fall of Tora Bora meant the foreign Arab, Pakistani and other volunteers who flocked to bin Laden's banner had lost their final haven in Afghanistan.

    ``This is the last day for al Qaeda in Afghanistan,'' Haji Zaman, top military commander in the eastern Jalalabad region, told reporters.

    Another senior commander said his men had killed 200 al Qaeda fighters and taken 25 prisoner.

    ``Tomorrow we will show you the prisoners and their weapons. We think (the fighting) will all be soon over,'' Hazrat Ali told Reuters on the road back from the front line.

    The anti-Taliban fighters had spent the day making their way up two valleys in the jagged White Mountains some 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Jalalabad to try to hunt down remaining al Qaeda fighters and find their leader in caves burrowed into the hills.

    Once again U.S. B-52 bombers raced through the skies, dropping huge bombs on suspected al Qaeda positions through the night and into the morning.

    In an unrelated incident nearby, three U.S. Marines were injured in an accidental explosion at Kandahar airport.

    Rumsfeld disclosed that U.S. forces had found materials and documents at a former al Qaeda base and were testing them for chemical, biological and radiation content.

    The defense secretary had been on a tour of Caucasus and Central Asian states, but his visit to Afghanistan was kept secret until the last moment.

    Karzai told Rumsfeld the Afghan people were thankful for America's help in battling terrorism and the Taliban.

    ``We were incapacitated earlier to deal with so many things at once in the country. You came on board and provided help for us -- provided the opportunity that we wanted,'' he said.

    Powell said the United States would now be pursuing other tracks in its war on terrorism, by destroying the rest of al Qaeda's global network.

    Bush has vowed to take down any and all terrorist organizations with a global reach.

    ``Now we have to go after the rest of the organization. That's why the president has made it clear from the very beginning, this is not a one-shot deal, it's a long-term campaign against terrorism,'' he said.

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