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Massive Civilian Casualties Reported Near Tora Bora

Aired December 1, 2001 - 11:09   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Let's move on to the other story that is breaking at this hour, and for that we pull in CNN's Brent Sadler. He is in Jalalabad with reports now of heavy civilian casualties as a result of the U.S. air campaign -- Brent.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes Martin, a news conference has just been held here in Jalalabad by Hazrat Ali (ph), who is the security chief for this area. And he's telling us here that 550 Afghan villagers were killed in bombings within the last 24 hours. American bombing, he says, and five others injured in an area close to Tora Bora that you were just hearing about there.

The warlords in this area are still sticking by their story that they believe there's a good chance -- 60, 70, 80 percent chance they say that Osama bin Laden himself may well be in this Tora Bora area, where there's a remote mountain complex of caves and tunnels.

And these villages -- two villages, called Belut (ph) and Kalkel (ph) are about a couple hours walk from that area where there are suspected hideouts by either bin Laden himself al Qaeda terrorists who might well be with him or have been left in that area.

And it's been -- as a result of bombing, they say, that there have been these casualties. I was in the hospital a couple of hours ago here in Jalalabad, spoke to some survivors who said that they have been bombed overnight.

Two children, a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old had critical severe injuries. One of the children have lost both hands, and one of the survivors (UNINTELLIGIBLE) told me that he'd lost 12 members of his family during the air strike.

Hazrat Ali, the security chief said that they regretted what he said is a heavy loss of life, but understood the reason why U.S. military planners were continuing their strikes against Tora Bora and that region. And they're saying that they'll take journalists into that remote area as soon as they can to show us what's been happening in terms of damage to crops, livestock and property as a result of the military effort from the air to get bin Laden or his associates -- Marty.

SAVIDGE: Brent, any time there are civilian casualties, it is obviously regrettable and painful. Has there been any explanation given on the ground there as to how this might have happened? SADLER: No explanation on the ground here whatsoever, but there have been tribal delegations coming to warlord leaders here in Jalalabad over the past two or three days, expressing mounting concern as bombing has intensified in the Tora Bora area.

So, too, have casualties and damage to civilian property, and the Mujahideen, the post-Taliban Mujahideen commanders here have been saying the past few days, they want to take military action against these areas, against Tora Bora, the suspected hideout. And they're very heavily insisting that the U.S. should help them clear this area for everyone's well-being -- Marty.

SAVIDGE: Brent Sadler on the phone from Jalalabad, thanks very much for the update -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Now we want to turn to the Pentagon, where our Jonathan Aiken is standing by, trying to get some reaction from that side of things with regard to what Brent Sadler's been talking about out of Jalalabad there, with the heavy civilian casualties.

What have you heard? Anything, Jonathan, from the Pentagon?

JONATHAN AIKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well so far, Kyra, no formal announcement, no confirmation of any of this information. The U.S. Central Command, which is based in Tampa, Florida, the Central Command in charge of the overall operation in Afghanistan, is the general clearinghouse for information of this type when it comes to activities related to U.S. air actions in Afghanistan.

And so far the word from the Central Command is they're looking into it; they haven't heard details of all the claims. Some of what they've heard has actually come from us before they come from some of their own sources.

There were some wire reports early this morning of a village about 15 kilometers, 30 miles south of Jalalabad, Kama Ado (ph) that was hit. And according to eyewitnesses, they said that was the subject of intense bombing, and it may have been accidental. It happened in the predawn hours. According to this eyewitness, about 3:30, 4:00 in the morning. It's not one of the villages that Brent was mentioning in his report.

But the U.S. did confirm -- Central Command did confirm for us that there was a great deal of air activity in the skies over Jalalabad and, in particular, the area around the White Mountains which goes back to the search for Osama bin Laden, and Tora Bora, this cave complex that General Shepperd was talking about, located there.

It's also thought that in the White Mountains, there's about 600 non-Afghan Taliban fighters and some al Qaeda forces who may be holed up in some pretty rugged real estate, and that U.S. fighter jets are trying to get those people out.

As for specific details on this incident and these reports, the Central Command says it's still working to confirm the information, and it may be some time before any kind of clear-cut confirmation or denial comes -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Jonathan Aiken, live from the Pentagon, thank you so much.

Well on the talk of where Osama bin Laden may be hiding out, we've been talking about the caves and mentioning -- or talking about rather the U.S. Special Forces and British Commandos that are reportedly going cave-to-cave for this -- in this hunt for Osama bin Laden.

We're going to bring in our General Don Shepperd once again to talk about the dangers in that hunt that is going on for bin Laden.

General, why don't we -- let's first talk about the area here in southern Afghanistan. We were talking about Kandahar and Jalalabad and Tora Bora and Marouf. Now, there are reports that the U.S. and British already have small teams searching for bin Laden. Is that true?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Kyra, I assume that it's true. We never talked exactly about what Special Forces are, where they are and what they're doing. But it's obvious that they have been for a long time searching for bin Laden in indications.

One thing I can insure you of, though, there is no small team of men that is going to go into a single cave trying to smoke out bin Laden. It's going to be a much more complex operation than that. This is among the most dangerous things that anyone can do is put people in a cave or tunnel complex, such as we did in Vietnam.

PHILLIPS: Absolutely. We actually have an animation here. Let's talk about this a little bit, when we're talking about the dangers that the soldiers might face and the hidden traps at a cave entrance.

Now here we have a Special Ops team, an animation here of about 20 soldiers searching for Afghan caves. Now a smaller team of maybe four soldiers approaches the cave entrance, and then I understand it could be hidden, for example, a booby trap like an iron door, camouflaged with mud and dirt.

Soldiers use a charge to blow the cave's entrance from what I understand. That reveals an infrared beam that can trigger a booby trap. Now the small team then throws in another charge that detonates that trap, or destroys the trigger mechanism, allowing the team to enter the cave safely. Do you agree with this information, and is that the best way to attack something like this?

SHEPPERD: I agree with the information. It's absolutely the worst way to attack something like that. This is exactly what you do not want to do is send small teams of men in to booby trapped tunnels. We have other ways of getting them with air, with ordinance and other weapons, probably most of which we will not be told about.

But you don't want to send small teams of men into these caves. As a last resort, there may be some of that at some time done by someone, but it's a bad way to go after people.

I remember one of my friends telling me about his experiences in Vietnam as a tunnel rat. He says they used to go in with .45 caliber pistols and red lens flashlights. He said you can't believe how big the head of a cobra looks under a red lens flashlight, and that's just an example of how dangerous this is.

You don't want to do it. You want to surround the area. You want to blow the entrances up. You want to limit the exits, and then you want to get people as they're coming out, or go after them with airborne ordinance and other methods.

PHILLIPS: So at what point do the soldiers have to go in then, General? Does it reach a point where there is just no other option? When is that point?

SHEPPERD: I suspect that there is a point where you would do some of that, but it ought to be as an absolute last resort. You ought to take every other means of doing it before you send small teams of men in.

We do have people that do this type of thing for a living. It's scary business and they're the bravest of the brave, but it's not something you want to do. And as you can see in these pictures, there's hundreds, if not thousands of caves in this area, and you do not want to go cave to cave. You want to focus your intelligence and go after one when you're absolutely, well at least you're reasonably certain that your prize is inside.

PHILLIPS: Now, all right let's switch gears just for a moment here. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was interviewed on CNN Today, and he was asked if he could describe how long it will take the U.S. forces to succeed in Afghanistan.

Let's, do we have this piece of the interview? Can we listen to it real quickly? OK, it's coming. Here we go.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I can't. The situation is so difficult. And I would say that it's not just in southern Afghanistan, but throughout the country. It looks as though it's reasonably settled in the northern and western portions. And it's pretty clear it's still unsettled in the Kandahar and Jalalabad area.

On the other hand, there are pockets of resistance up north and in the west. A good many of these people who surrendered and turned in their arms and then left, and a number of other of the Taliban ended up just fading into the villages and the mountains, and they're still there and they're still armed.


PHILLIPS: General, how do you respond?

SHEPPERD: It is the size of Texas. A lot of the people, just like the desperate people with desperate things on their minds that we saw in Mazar-e Sharif, hundreds if not thousands of those have melted into the mountains. They can go to their cave where they've got things stored. They can come out at any time.

This is a very dangerous place and will be for some time to come, with mopping up operations and then, of course, securing the southern part of the country, including these very extensive cave readouts that you want to search, and at the same time, bringing law and order across Afghanistan, no small task -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Major General Don Shepherd, once again thanks so much.




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