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Anti-Taliban fighters battle al Qaeda



JALALABAD, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces fought a brief gun battle with al Qaeda gunmen Tuesday in the hills near Jalalabad, their commander said.

The brief skirmish took place on the approach to the mountains around Tora Bora, said Hazrat Ali, the security chief in Jalalabad. Ali said advance troops sent to the area had engaged al Qaeda fighters with small arms in a firefight that lasted several minutes. He said there were no casualties and the al Qaeda gunmen fled.

Ali claimed local forces captured a Taliban tank during the skirmish, and would send an additional 1,500 troops to the area backed by multiple rocket launchers and artillery. He also said a U.S. warplane bombed an area close to his forces during the engagement.

Afghan mujahedeen leaders have threatened in recent days to launch attacks against al Qaeda or Taliban forces reportedly holed up in mountain tunnels around Tora Bora. The area has been subjected to heavy U.S. bombardment for more than four days.

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U.S. officials blame bin Laden and al Qaeda for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which left nearly 4,000 dead.

Ali said he had heard unconfirmed reports that about 10 al Qaeda members had been killed in the airstrikes.

Another Afghan commander reported earlier Tuesday that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, had been wounded in an the Tora Bora cave complex. Ali had no information on whether al-Zawahiri had been killed or injured, and CNN could not independently confirm such a report. U.S. officials told CNN they have no information suggesting the report is correct.

U.S. officials also said that to date, the U.S. has not had information allowing it to specifically target al-Zawahiri. But since suspected locations of al Qaeda leaders have been hit a number of times, the officials said the report cannot be ruled out entirely.

An Egyptian exile, al-Zawahiri, 50, is a physician and reputedly bin Laden's closest adviser. Another senior al Qaeda leader -- Mohammed Atef, the group's military strategist -- was reported killed in a U.S. airstrike near Kabul in November.

Local authorities have blamed numerous civilian casualties, including at least 50 deaths, on U.S. attacks over the weekend. The Pentagon has said its raids have not targeted civilian villages, and none of its weapons went astray.

Monday, Ali said bin Laden asked anti-Taliban forces not to launch an attack on the Tora Bora area. He said bin Laden told Afghan tribal elders that he was ready to battle "foreigners" -- but not Afghans, at whose side he fought in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Ali said opposition leaders rejected bin Laden's request.

Meanwhile, in Kandahar, U.S.-led airstrikes targeted the city's airport in day and night raids on the Taliban's last stronghold. U.S. warplanes faced little threat from the ground and could be seen flying low over the city Tuesday.

North of the city, two villages fell to anti-Taliban forces. Sporadic gunfire and artillery outbursts could be heard in Kandahar, sources in the city said, and residents were on edge, fearful of an attack.

A contingent of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines remained at a desert base south of Kandahar, where they are being used to patrol roads and search for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters on the move. Marine officers at the base said over the weekend they could join the battle for Kandahar, but U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that no decision had been made.

"We're not going to rule out anything, but we don't have any plans at the present time to use U.S. forces in that way," Rumsfeld said.

Sources in Kandahar said the airport is partially under the control of ethnic Pashtun fighters. Local troops are virtually face to face with Taliban opposition, according to one commander.

Intense bombing Monday destroyed two bridges into the city, leaving it with only one access route and isolating it from the surrounding countryside. No negotiations appeared to be under way to hand over Kandahar to opposition control.

Another contingent of 3,000 Taliban fighters who were holed up in the historic northern city of Balkh agreed Monday to surrender to the Northern Alliance, alliance sources said. The surrender is set to begin Tuesday, although 300 non-Afghan fighters, under the control of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, were reportedly refusing to give up.

CNN Correspondents Brent Sadler, Robert Pelton and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.



 
 
 
 



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