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Warplanes pound bin Laden's supposed hiding place

U.S. Marines begin checking out Kandahar's airport on Friday.
U.S. Marines begin checking out Kandahar's airport on Friday.  

TORA BORA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. warplanes Friday pounded a concentrated area in the mountainous region around Tora Bora where U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden is effectively surrounded by opposition and U.S. forces.

The planes, including low-flying C-130 gunships, targeted suspected al Qaeda positions. Several explosions rocked the Tora Bora area in the early hours Friday.

Fierce fighting was under way in two valleys south of Tora Bora near the Afghan border with Pakistan. The al Qaeda fighters were putting up strong resistance, said one senior U.S. official.

"The al Qaeda are fighting damn hard, as though there is really something there worth fighting for," this official said.

Bin Laden is believed in a cave complex in an area bounded by valleys to the east and west, with Eastern Alliance forces pressing from the north and Pakistani troops in a "perfect blocking position" to the south, the official said.

"We don't know exactly where he is, but we think that's the right area," the official said.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports the Pentagon has beefed up U.S. Special Forces in Tora Bora with orders to try to take Osama bin Laden alive (December 13)

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Al Qaeda troops at Tora Bora may have used a surrender offer cease-fire as a ruse to let leaders get away. CNN's Brent Sadler reports (December 13)

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CNN's Thelma Gutierrez reports on a support group of military wives who stay in touch with their husbands via the Internet (December 13)

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Eastern Alliance troops commanded by Hazrat Ali are pushing south in the Agam valley to the east, while others led by Mohammed Zaman are moving south in the Wazir Valley to the west, the official said.

The official cited sightings of bin Laden by Eastern Alliance troops, anecdotal information and intense fighting by al Qaeda as indications bin Laden was in the Tora Bora region.

"It's not that all roads lead to this valley, but at this time the best ones do," the official said.

Another senior military official in Washington told CNN the United States believes bin Laden is effectively surrounded. The official stressed, however, the United States has many conflicting reports and does not know for sure where bin Laden is.

Marines occupy Kandahar airport

In southern Afghanistan, hundreds of Marines rolled through Kandahar early Friday en route to the city's airport, where they began combing the buildings to further secure the facility for military operations.

It was the largest tactical operation since the Marines seized so-called Camp Rhino three weeks ago in southern Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Forces took the Kandahar airport under control in recent days, as the United States seeks to bolster its operations against the al Qaeda and the Taliban -- and the hunt for its leaders.

One of the U.S. officials in Washington told CNN that intelligence reports indicate Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is in Helmond province, to the west of Kandahar.

The Marines rumbled through Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold to fall and where Omar had his headquarters, in the pre-dawn hours Friday in light armored vehicles and Humvees. Numerous helicopters took off from Camp Rhino, apparently headed for the Kandahar airport.

The task force commander in charge of the Marine operation, Brig. Gen. James Maddis, said he had been in touch with the designated interim government leader Hamid Karzai and that the operation was conducted with the full support of anti-Taliban groups. Maddis said Karzai encouraged the operation.

The Marines were to secure the perimeter of the airport and then go through each building room-by-room to make sure they are safe.

U.S. military personnel said the airstrip was severely damaged, but there is enough room to land C-130s on at least one runway.

Commander: Deadline talks a ploy

Al Qaeda fighters around Tora Bora had been given until noon (2:30 a.m. ET) Thursday to surrender bin Laden and his inner circle.

Ahead of the deadline, Eastern Alliance commander Ali told CNN's Brent Sadler he believed any talk of a surrender would be a ploy for al Qaeda to gain time for an escape, and he started a new offensive against al Qaeda overnight.

Intercepted al Qaeda radio signals -- pledging "victory or martyrdom" -- seemed to indicate the fighters still may fight to the death. The messages also threatened to turn Eastern Alliance fighters "into dust" if they brought the battle too close.


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