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Brent Sadler: Inside the ruins of an al Qaeda base

CNN's Brent Sadler
CNN's Brent Sadler  

(CNN) -- The anti-Taliban Eastern Alliance have given al Qaeda fighters in the mountainous Tora Bora area until 8 a.m. local time Wednesday (10:30 p.m. EST Tuesday) to lay down their arms or face further attacks.

The lull in fighting follows a fierce push by the Eastern Alliance into the mountains surrounding Tora Bora. It allowed CNN's Brent Sadler a chance to get an exclusive look at a bombed-out former al Qaeda base. He filed this report.

SADLER: This is the end of a very dramatic day here, and I've been able to personally witness the way the anti-Taliban Afghan forces have been engaged in close-quarter combat with al Qaeda defenders on the way up to Tora Bora. There was one period of time when just 200 or 300 yards separated gunners, and we took incoming fire along with the Afghan warriors.

We have exclusive pictures of what it looks like inside one of these destroyed al Qaeda cave bases, the subject of very heavy U.S. bombing over the past couple of weeks.

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These pictures show what clearly was a very important training center. We saw a weight training area, exercise yard. And we saw a miniature moonscape, if you like, of giant craters pockmarking this entire area.

Also we saw a destroyed tank. The al Qaeda defenders have many tanks. This is the first close-up identification we've got that Osama bin Laden's fighters' defenses are crumbling.

We also got to see inside some caves -- we saw ammunition, checkbooks, various weapons smashed apart over the last several days.

At the end of this day, the Eastern Alliance forces came down the mountain. I saw the two commanders at the end of this day -- a very weary day -- and they were telling me that they were giving 15 or 16 more hours for al Qaeda to step in and surrender.

One commander said they would be very interested in some sort of United Nations mechanism to take prisoners of war. But he did say a surrender of al Qaeda would be very difficult because al Qaeda is still spread over a wide area; they're nervous, they're jumpy, and one can expect more firefights in the morning, even as the surrender possibly takes place.

I also asked them about bin Laden, and the two commanders told me they still do not rule out the possibility that bin Laden could be up there, still hanging out with diehard fighters around him. If he's dead, they'd bring down his body. If he's alive, they'd take his surrender.

CNN: Is there a belief that the United States will stop its bombing campaign as the waiting time starts for this deadline?

SADLER: It's unclear. What I can tell you is that we just saw the contrails of heavy U.S. bombers overhead here. In terms of what might be achieved by aerial bombing at this stage, it's difficult to say.

Al Qaeda is certainly on the run ... but they're still up there. We don't know how many -- several hundred, at least, according to the commanders I spoke to. They still have weapons; they still have mortars. So there's still more work to be done.

CNN: It's hard to make out from the pictures how many people might have been stationed there at the training center. Do you have any idea?

SADLER: A large number. This one complex had a communications room; it had many caves and positions dug out from the rock's face. You could see the carved positions in the rocks. And they managed to get two tanks right up to the area in very difficult terrain.

This area was large; it would have been well-defended.


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