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Anti-Taleban Forces Capture al-Qaida Hideout - 2001-12-11

In eastern Afghanistan, Northern Alliance and local militia leaders have captured what they say is the last major hideout of fighters belonging to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization. Some of the al-Qaida fighters are believed to have fled to neighboring Pakistan, and there's still no clue as to where the world's most wanted fugitive, Osama bin Laden, could be.

Tank fire from Northern Alliance troops in pursuit of al-Qaida fighters echoes through the rugged hills surrounding Tora Bora. Early Monday morning, the final battle for Milowa Hill was in full swing. For the past week, anti-Taleban fighters in the area have been attempting to capture the hill, encountering heavy resistance from up to 3,000 Arab al-Qaida fighters dug in around the area.

US warplanes overnight dropped anti-personnel cluster bombs to help clear the hill. Witnesses in the area say a US helicopter arrived overnight carrying dozens of heavily armed US soldiers. They are believed to have made raids against the al-Qaida command post and returned to base before sunrise.

Alliance soldiers Tuesday then pushed in with tanks, 30-millimeter cannon fire and light arms. Anti-Taleban commander in the region Haji Mohammed Zaman told VOA al-Qaida fighters said that they were ready to surrender.

By late afternoon the heavy fighting had died down. Anti-Taleban commanders confirmed that their troops had captured the hill and a cave complex the al-Qaida fighters had been using as a base. "Today, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, they called me [and said] 'we don't want to fight with you and don't fight with us.' I said if you want to surrender, I am ready to stop the war. Then I told them you must get off from the area. They say we are a lot of people [and] tomorrow morning [at] 8 o'clock, group by group we will come to you."

Showing journalists around the captured base, one of the commanders, Gul Khadim, declares that the center of al-Qaida was finished. He points to the area where his troops are removing large amounts of weapons and ammunition, including mortars, missiles, anti-tank mines and rocket grenades.

The Milowa cave base is one of 15 such al-Qaida caves anti-Taleban forces have captured around Tora Bora in the last two weeks, but they have not been able to capture any significant number of fleeing al-Qaida troops. Commander Khadim says his forces are still in pursuit of the fighters, but admits many have probably slipped into neighboring Pakistan. Mr. Zaman says those who have been captured or surrendered will be turned over to the United Nations to decide their fate.

The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden is still unknown. Some local leaders believe he is still in Tora Bora. One tribal leader said that he spotted the Saudi fugitive directing his al-Qaida troops Monday. The sighting could not be confirmed.