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AP: Eastern Alliance Captures Tora Bora

Aired December 16, 2001 - 07:02   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Some possibly significant news from Afghanistan this morning, This from the Associated Press reporting that tribal fighters, the Eastern Alliance, have captured the last al Qaeda positions in the area we call Tora Bora, the area now familiar to you.

CNN's Walter Rodgers is there.

Walt, what do you hear about the AP report?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, what we've heard from the Eastern Alliance commanders throughout the day is that they have been conducted military campaigns through the valleys in the Tora Bora region just a few miles behind me. At this point, they are saying they did not encounter the al Qaeda fighters, they did not find Osama bin Laden and they are now saying that they believe most of the al Qaeda fighters have fled the western area of Tora Bora and they believe they are heading for the Pakistani border. There is just one mountain ridge, a very high mountain ridge, which the al Qaeda fighters would have cross to make it into Pakistan.

Of course, we've also been told that the Pakistanis have special surfaces, Special Forces units along that border as well and helicopter patrols. But at least the Eastern Alliance commanders, Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Haji Zaman say they think that bin Laden has fled the area. They also think that most of the al Qaeda fighters who of course support bin Laden have also evacuated the Tora Bora region.

They are speculating they went into Pakistan. We can't confirm that, but we've been getting the reports, as I say, from two Eastern Alliance commanders that al Qaeda isn't here anymore, at least not where they thought they'd be -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, Walt, this has been the concern for some time that that porous border into Pakistan might be an escape valve, if you will, for al Qaeda. There's a lot of Pakistani regulars on the Pakistani side there. Is it possible they could still get through that particular region?

ROGERS: Well, they might be able to get through in small numbers. There are several other possibilities here. One of those possibilities is, of course, that the al Qaeda fighters may have gone to ground in the extreme eastern sector of Tora Bora. Remember, there has always reportedly been a very large cave complex in that area, which could take tractor-trailer trucks, jeeps, large vehicles. So it is possible that they had gone to ground and the Eastern Alliance fighters simply could not find them. Or it is possible, as I say or as the Eastern Alliance officers say -- commanders say, that they may have escaped.

It's not clear how thoroughly that the Eastern Alliance soldiers, about 2,000 of them, were when they went up those valleys or how much resistance they may have encountered. As I say, the Eastern Alliance commanders have about 2,000 soldiers in this area, 2,000 anti-Taliban Afghan fighters. It is has estimated that there are between 300 and perhaps a 1,000 al Qaeda fighters left up there or there were before this campaign up the valleys into Tora Bora today.

But now, the Eastern Alliance commanders say they went up those valleys. They believe al Qaeda has fled. And Mohammed Haji Zaman is saying he also believes that Osama bin Laden is no longer in this region -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Walt, what about all that talk about fighting to the death? It seems like a fairly dramatic turnaround here. Of course, you know, we've been talking about the possibility the U.S. has been dropping as many as 200 bombs per day. That can change the way a fighter might think, but nevertheless, this seems a bit sudden.

ROGERS: Miles, I've...

O'BRIEN: All right.

ROGERS: ... lost the IFB, but let me tell you what we think is happening. What we think is that, according to the Eastern Alliance commanders, they may have simply fled up towards Pakistan. We don't know that they've crossed the border because the Pakistanis would have sent some sort of signal if that had been the case.

They could, however, have gone deeply into the tunnels and the caves in the mountains. And at this point, the Eastern Alliance soldiers simply did not want to pursue them into those caves. So they reported back that in their incursions of the valleys here in Tora Bora, they did not encounter any al Qaeda resistance today in these two-prong campaign up there.

Consequently, they're reporting that they can't find al Qaeda. But we can't be sure because, as I say, we're not allowed that last five miles up into the valley at this point -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Walter Rodgers in Tora Bora and we'll check in with him a little bit later and hopefully, make it possible for us to talk to him a little further -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the military has made a significant find in a suspected al Qaeda weapons development site. Our Kathleen Koch joins us now from the Pentagon with more on that.

Hi, Kathleen. KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kyra. Well, first let's speak to what is just being reported, that perhaps al Qaeda fighters in that Tora Bora region have been defeated, have been driven from the region. We've checked with the Pentagon Central Command and they have no confirmation whatsoever of that report at this point. We do know that U.S. Special Operation Forces have been traveling with the Eastern Alliance, working with them, helping direct their fire and direct the fire of U.S. aircraft overhead. So we hope at some point if not this morning than later on in the day to have some word on exactly what's happening there.

Now, some of the latest that we're hearing, before we get to Secretary Rumsfeld, is that three U.S. Marines have been injured though their injuries are not life-threatening. At the Kandahar Airport, the U.S. Marines began occupying that airport Friday night and the areas is just ripe with mines, with unexploded ordinates. So what apparently happened south of the runway was that one Marine stepped on one of these unexploded mines and that two Marines nearby were injured. Huey helicopter airlifted them down to Camp Rhino where their injuries are being treated, but again, at last word, none of those injuries were life threatening.

Now, actually, for the first time in Afghanistan, Secretary Rumsfeld has landed in the country. He is at Bahrain Airfield. That's north of Kabul. And he is there not only to meet with U.S. Special Operations Forces and the folks with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, but also to meet with the new head of Afghanistan, the interim leader, Hamid Karzai. Rumsfeld has said that he believes it's important to meet with the country's new leaders, to talk about what has been done and what is left to be done.

Now, also, as I said, he's going to be meeting with the Marines there. He says -- not the Marines there, but the 10th Mountain Division, talking to what he called real people about the real work that has to be done. And while there, the Secretary mentioned the suspect site where they have taken some documents -- really a treasure trove of information, the site was actually near the Rhino base, the Marine base south of Kandahar and the Secretary said, "The take was large and significant. We might find something interesting."

All the material that was found there at this -- it was a research site -- is being examined for chemical, biological and radiation content -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, our Kathleen Koch from the Pentagon. Thanks so much. We'll check in with you in the next hour -- Miles.

KOCH: You're welcome.




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