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Airstrikes resume over eastern Afghanistan

B-52 vapor trail
A vapor trail is left behind by a U.S. B-52 bomber as it flew near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday.  

TORA BORA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Airstrikes on targets in mountainous eastern Afghanistan resumed Friday after three days of reconnaissance missions, including the destruction of a convoy the Pentagon said was carrying al Qaeda leadership.

The Pentagon also announced a new high-tech bunker busting bomb is being sent to Afghanistan. The laser-guided bomb is a "thermobaric" weapon, a high-temperature, high-pressure explosive that destroys underground caves and tunnels.

U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace said a convoy with 10 to 12 vehicles was attacked by AC-130 gunships and fighter jets near the city of Khost, southwest of the Tora Bora mountains.

Pace declined to give specifics about what leaders were in the convoy but he said the people were killed and the vehicles and the compound from which the convoy left were destroyed.

The airstrike was based on intelligence information that the Pentagon received, he said. Khost has been hit before by U.S. airstrikes because terrorist training camps are believed to be located in the area.

CNN's Bob Franken reports the U.S. military will use new thermobaric bombs that are to be dropped into caves and tunnels from F-15 jets (December 21)

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"But the intelligence that we gathered at the time indicated to us that this was in fact leadership, and we struck the leadership, as we will do next time we get that kind of intelligence," said Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

F-14 and F-18 fighter jets from the carrier USS John C. Stennis flew their first missions Friday since arriving in the region on December 15, striking undisclosed targets.

The Stennis replaced the USS Carl Vinson in the region in mid-December. The Stennis battle group includes 10 U.S. and Canadian ships and submarines, plus more than 80 tactical aircraft, and 8,500 sailors and Marines.

New weapon more effective in caves, tunnels

Ten of the new bunker-busting bombs are being sent for use in the Afghanistan campaign. The weapon uses a new class of fuel-rich explosive in its warhead that releases energy over a longer period of time than conventional explosives. This allows for a longer period of high pressure inside a confined space like tunnels or caves, thereby creating more destruction.

The Pentagon said tests show this new type of explosive is more effective specifically in caves and tunnels. In an accelerated two-month field test completed on December 14, the Air Force demonstrated that a ground-penetrating warhead filled with thermobaric explosives could destroy a mock tunnel target at the Nevada Test Site.

"It's something that we clearly have a need for in Afghanistan, and they're on their way over there," said Edward Aldridge, under secretary of defense for acquisition.

The new warhead, known as the BLU-118B, is fitted onto the BLU-109 2,000 pound air-launched bomb, and will be launched by Air Force F-15E fighter jets.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also confirmed that "hundreds" more troops will be joining the forces searching caves in the Tora Bora region for al Qaeda fighters. Up until now, anti-Taliban Afghan fighters and a limited number of U.S. Special Forces have been conducting the searches.

Late Thursday, two U.S. military sources told CNN that up to 500 Marines could be ready as soon as this weekend to begin searching the Tora Bora caves.

Rumsfeld, who appeared with Pace at a Pentagon news briefing, declined to say whether the additional troops would be Marines.

"Whatever is needed will be sent, and it won't be just U.S. It'll be coalition forces," he said.

Rumsfeld also reiterated that the United States still doesn't know where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is, or if he is dead or alive, but he also warned against drawing any conclusions.

"There's a truth, a truism in the intelligence world that is appropriate to the question of where is bin Laden," Rumsfeld said. "And it is the following, that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

7,000 prisoners being questioned

A spokesman for the coalition forces also said that there are now an estimated 7,000 prisoners being interrogated to determine their level of involvement in the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Despite the aggressive mission to find them, both bin Laden and Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remain at large. There is speculation the two men may have fled to Pakistan but coalition spokesman Kenton Keith said Thursday in Islamabad that officials had "no reason to think that either Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden are outside Afghanistan."

Coalition forces hope that some of the estimated 7,000 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners currently held in Afghanistan can offer clues leading to the leaders.

Keith said that the prisoners were also being questioned "to determine if they have committed the kind of crimes that make them of particular interest to the coalition or if they are ... people who are late joiners, if they are people who are merely sympathizers who have been brought into this and caught up in the process; if they are the hard-liners or people with blood on their hands."

Across the border in Pakistan, Pakistani troops and tribal authorities combined efforts to stop al Qaeda members trying to slip into the country. Authorities in the remote region said Thursday they had captured more than 180 people in the last 10 to 12 days believed to be al Qaeda fighters.

Most of the security forces are positioned in the White Mountains near the Tora Bora range of Afghanistan, where U.S.-led bombing strikes have backed Afghan forces in the nearly three-week long campaign to flush al Qaeda from its mountain hideouts.

It is the first time since Pakistan's independence more than half a century ago that the Pakistani army has been deployed to the tribal areas along the Afghan frontier.

First British peacekeepers arrive

Meanwhile, 53 British marines arrived overnight at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the vanguard of a multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

The arrival of the British forces from the 40 Commando Division Thursday night came only hours after the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to authorize a multinational force that will eventually number 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

About 150 British troops were already at Bagram, and about 100 were expected to move into Kabul Friday, a day ahead of the interim government's assumption of power.

Gen. Franks will join James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, in the U.S. delegation to the ceremonies in Kabul.

More peacekeepers will deploy in Afghanistan after the interim government formalizes the agreement with the U.N. to provide a stabilization force.

CNN Correspondents Frank Buckley and Kamal Hyder contributed to this report.


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