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Bin Laden's whereabouts still a mystery

A captured al Qaeda fighter is led away in eastern Afghanistan.
A captured al Qaeda fighter is led away in eastern Afghanistan.  

TORA BORA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A handful of prisoners captured by anti-Taliban forces said Monday they believe terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is hiding out in Tora Bora, but the U.S. defense secretary called his whereabouts "a question mark."

The non-Afghan prisoners, who fought with al Qaeda forces, were being interrogated, CNN's Walter Rodgers reported.

Bin Laden's location has been the subject of increasing speculation since the weekend when his voice was apparently picked up on a radio transmission from Tora Bora. The prisoners said Monday that bin Laden was still in the area, despite other reports saying that he had fled.

When asked whether bin Laden had escaped from the mountainous region in eastern Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the question presumed that bin Laden had been there.

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"Since we don't know that with precision, and we don't know if he's there now, it would be difficult to answer the question," said Rumsfeld before landing in Brussels for a NATO conference that begins Tuesday.

"There are people who continue to speculate that he may be in that area, or he may not be in that area, or that he may be somewhere else. My feeling is until we catch him, which we will, we won't know precisely where he was."

On Saturday, U.S. officials told CNN they were "reasonably certain" that one of the voices they have been monitoring on battlefield radios in the Tora Bora region is bin Laden's.

Other intelligence sources said they picked up a high quality radio transmission Friday of what they believed to be bin Laden's voice. They did voice print work on it and confirmed it was, in fact, bin Laden.

Technical analysts said there remains a grain of doubt about whether this means that bin Laden is, in fact, in Tora Bora, since there's the slim possibility that either the radio transmission originated in another location and went through a transmitter in Tora Bora, or the voice transmission was a tape recording.

On the battle front, U.S. airstrikes aimed at flushing remaining al Qaeda fighters from their mountainous hideouts ended several hours before nightfall Monday, Rodgers reported.

Any leftover al Qaeda fighters were believed to be cornered in the White Mountains close to the Pakistan border, at an altitude of about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), the correspondent said.

Any who have fled likely have gone to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, an area inhabited by the Pashtun tribe that originally extended hospitality to bin Laden in Afghanistan, Rodgers reported.

Rumsfeld, who said the war is not over, said about 30 al Qaeda or Taliban fighters had been captured in the last 24 hours, and U.S. special forces were helping anti-Taliban troops search caves and tunnels used as possible hiding places.

"There are still a lot of Taliban in the country and they are still armed, and it is going to take time and energy and effort and people will be killed in the process of trying to find them and capture them or have them surrender," Rumsfeld said.

Over the weekend, U.S. planes flew 225 sorties over Afghanistan, including 125 Sunday, Pentagon officials said in Washington. Leaflets were also dropped in the Tora Bora area Sunday, urging the fighters to surrender and offering a reward for the capture of bin Laden. Humanitarian rations and blankets were dropped near Konduz.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, there were ceremonies marking the reopening of the former U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital for the first time in nearly 13 years. A U.S. Marine color guard raised the same flag taken down from the same flagpole on January 30, 1989.

In southern Afghanistan, at Kandahar airport, 12 C-130 transport planes landed overnight in a rainstorm to drop off more men and materials, some of which will be used to repair runways pockmarked by craters. A detention facility built by the U.S. Marines for war prisoners also has been completed, reported CNN's Mike Chinoy.

A Marine who stepped on a mine during a mine-sweeping operation at the airport had his leg amputated, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said at a Pentagon briefing on Monday. Two other Marines injured in the mine explosion remained in stable condition.


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