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Sadler: The 'new front line' near Tora Bora

Anti-Taliban fighters, aided by U.S. warplanes, strike at al Qaeda positions near Tora Bora.


JALALABAD, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The hunt for Osama bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda organization has focused U.S. air power, and increasing numbers of anti-Taliban fighters, on Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Opposition officials said Wednesday they planned to send 2,000 to 3,000 troops to engage and look for al Qaeda fighters in the maze of mountains, caves and tunnels. CNN's Brent Sadler visited Tora Bora on Wednesday, later talking about the "new front line" from nearby Jalalabad with anchor Paula Zahn.

SADLER: I just returned from this front line -- this new front line about a 1.5-hour drive from Jalalabad. These pictures show that the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda supporters -- his die-hard fighters in the Tora Bora range of mountains -- is really heating up.

We saw T-55, old Russian-made tanks, blasting away at the foothills of Tora Bora. We saw the mujahedeen fighters, U.S. friendly forces under the control of Eastern Alliance authorities here, using three T-55 tanks within a few miles of what they said was the first al Qaeda position, defending the main approach road to Tora Bora.

It is thought that the al Qaeda leadership, including bin Laden himself, may be at the very top of the mountains. Those mountains mark the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leadership targets may be dug in the complex of tunnels and caves there.

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We also were told by commanders on the ground that the anti-Taliban infantry, if you like, was engaging al Qaeda with machine gun fire at pretty close quarters. [The fighters were] about a kilometer, they said, in front of the tank lines.

They said they suffered some light casualties [and said] al Qaeda terrorists were putting up stiff resistance with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. This is just the beginning of the battle on the ground.

We saw U.S. heavy bombers over the area at the same time. In conjunction with the tank fire, we saw heavy bombing of the same reported al Qaeda location produce tremendous explosions and huge plumes of smoke.

There was concern by the mujahedeen directing the tanks and the commanders that the bombs dropped by the American warplanes may have come pretty close to advancing mujahedeen troops.

ZAHN: You said quite saliently that Osama bin Laden might be on top of the mountain. Is there any evidence to suggest that is the case?

SADLER: This is coming from Hazrat Ali, the security chief, who took truckloads more of his fighters to the front lines within the past hour or so, just as the sun was setting here. The campaign strategy of the mujahedeen is to drive forward and push up the al Qaeda defenders in the lowlands higher up the mountains.

Hazrat Ali fought the Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s from Tora Bora. He knows it well. He knows it's a very difficult place to take, and he knows it will probably end up with hand-to-hand fighting.

And they have strong suspicions that top al Qaeda people, possibly bin Laden himself, may be up there. If so, this is really the closest bin Laden enemies have perhaps got to him since this war in Afghanistan began.

So this is crucially important to see how this mujahedeen offensive goes in the coming days.


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