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Eastern Alliance commanders believe al Qaeda fleeing



TORA BORA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. warplanes dropped bombs in the Tora Bora region Sunday night, as two top Eastern Alliance commanders claimed that most of the al Qaeda fighters have fled from the area to Pakistan.

About six explosions were heard some eight miles (13 km) west of Tora Bora near the Pakistan border, CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers reported at 7:30 p.m. (10 a.m. EST). Earlier in the day, intense bombing and fierce fighting erupted in the region between the Eastern Alliance and al Qaeda troops.

The anti-Taliban commanders, Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Haji Zaman, told CNN they believe the al Qaeda fighters -- and possibly their leader Osama bin Laden -- are heading over the mountains into Pakistan.

Their report could not be independently confirmed.

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Zaman said his forces had combed the extensive cave networks in the western part of Tora Bora, with no sign of any al Qaeda members. He told CNN it is an "already finished war."

Zaman, who has about 2,200 fighters under his command, according to his registration list, claims to have captured 35 al Qaeda fighters and killed 200 others in areas under his control. He said he hopes to find 50 to 60 more al Qaeda fighters in the forests near Tora Bora, where his forces continued to search Sunday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who is visiting Bagram air base near Kabul, said the United States continued to receive "mixed messages" about bin Laden's location.

"We'll have to wait and see where he is," Rumsfeld said. "We found nothing that is discouraging."

Rumsfeld said an intense battle erupted in the Tora Bora region Sunday. "(Coalition air forces) have fired off more than 200 105-millimeter howitzer rounds and thousands of lower-caliber ordnance," Rumsfeld said before arriving at the base Sunday.

"(American and opposition forces) have captured a number of al Qaeda; they've killed a number of al Qaeda; (and) they've wounded a number of al Qaeda," the defense secretary said.

Rumsfeld said the United States and its allies are finding more openings to caves.

"We do believe it's going to be difficult for (al Qaeda) to get out of there -- not impossible but difficult," he said.

Farther south in Kandahar, three Marines were injured in a mine-clearing operation south of the runway at Kandahar airport, but a U.S. Central Command spokesman said the injuries were not life-threatening.

Maj. Pete Mitchell of the Central Command, speaking from MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, told CNN that a Marine accidentally stepped on a mine, which exploded and injured two other Marines.

All three were taken to nearby Camp Rhino, the Marine base in southern Afghanistan, for medical treatment at a field hospital there.

They were in stable condition Sunday, with mild to moderate injuries ranging from shrapnel wounds to hearing impairment, said Maj. Brad Lowell of Central Command.

The area surrounding the perimeter of airport is heavily mined. Clearing the mines and unexploded ordnance is a huge problem for the military, which wants to make the airport operational.

Near Camp Rhino, the U.S. military gathered significant intelligence from a suspected al Qaeda biological, chemical and nuclear weapons site, Rumsfeld said. The intelligence material was taken from a site called Tarnak Farms, about 3.5 miles (5.5 km) east of the Marine desert base in southern Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld said a good deal of material documentation and other items were found at the location. The site -- believed to be used for research -- was on a list of 25 or 30 sites that have been systematically reviewed by American forces as they came available in Afghanistan. The material is being examined for chemical, biological and radiation content.

"The take was large and significant, and we might find something interesting," Rumsfeld said.



 
 
 
 



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