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Reporter's Notebook: al-Qaida Caves - 2001-12-16

After a week of heavy fighting, anti-Taleban troops in eastern Afghanistan captured an al Qaida mountain base and weapons depot in Tora Bora.

VOA's Alisha Ryu was recently in Tora Bora and got a first hand look at the cave-base and the battle site. She has this account on events.

It was impossible to sleep Monday night in Tora Bora. The constant deafening roar of American jets and B-52's streaking overhead on bombing runs was partly the reason. But so was the anticipation that one of the last major al-Qaida mountain bases would finally be captured by morning.

Regional anti-Taleban commanders had confidently predicted that the thousand or so mostly Arab al-Qaida defenders would quickly abandon the cave complex once the attack gained momentum. The commanders promised to allow journalists to view the al- Qaida hide out, if they captured it.

Over the previous week anti-Taleban forces had captured some 15 other al-Qaida caves in the area. But this one on Malawah Hill, would clearly show what forces loyal to the world's most wanted fugitive, Osama Bin Laden, had been building and stock piling in Tora Bora.

There was even some hope that Osama Bin Laden would also be captured in the area. On Monday a local tribal leader swore that his men had seen Osama Bin Laden with his fighters on Malawah Hill.

By sunrise Tuesday the fighting appeared to be well underway. From a hilltop position about two kilometers away, journalists listened to booms from tank and artillery fire echoing through the deep mountain canyons below.

American warplanes were nolonger bombing but the exchange of fire between anti-Talebon and al-Qaida fighters became intense.

Then around Noon local time silence fell over the mountains. A few minutes later, regional anti-Talebon commander Haji Zahir told reporters the battle was over.

He said that Malawah Hill had been filled with al-Qaida fighters but his troops had pushed them back over the mountain ridge beyond the hill.

He then gives journalists permission to follow his men over to Malawah. Nearing the hill by foot, we pass an area about one square kilometer, that had been flattened overnight by U.S. bombs.

Once-leafy trees stand scorched and broken, stripped of everything but their branches.

Huge chunks of shrapnel weighing seven over kilos, litter the hill top. Contents of a backpack left behind by a fleeing Al-Qaida fighter flutter desolately in the wind.

Next to an enormous impact crater a dozen local villagers are already scooping up the shrapnel to sell as scrap metal, ignoring the danger from unexploded ordnance all around them, and from al-Qaida snipers still lingering nearby.

One of Mr. Zahir's deputies, Abdullah, escorts us down the treacherous, rocky road leading to the valley below Malawah Hill.

Question:"What do you think you will find in the cave there?"
Answer:"Ah, I don't know. We will try to find some papers and documents about Al-Qaida."

A small mud brick house suddenly looms into view. Nestled into a mountainside, the structure is simple and unimposing.

Anti-Taleban soldiers begin a rapid security sweep around the house. It is empty and some of the soldiers laugh with apparent relief.

Commander Gul Khadim says this is a happy day for the anti-Taleban Eastern Alliance. He says they're happy because the capture of the base means the center of al-Qaida is finished. He points to a cave next to the house where al-Qaida had stored some 5,000 rounds of ammunition, 70 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 50 missiles and various other weapons.

After making sure the cave is not boobytrapped, a swarm of soldiers start hauling away the war booty.

They put the ammunition and weapons in the back of several abandoned al-Qaida pickup trucks nearby and drive away quickly.

As the sun begins setting over Malawah Hill some of the other soldiers start making their way back up the hill on foot, their weapons slung carelessly over their shoulders.

The singing does not last long. An al-Qaida sniper is nearby.

No one was hit but it serves as a sobering reminder that the battle to finish off Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network is far from over.