Jalalabad, Afghanistan — The long-awaited ground attack on suspected terrorist hide-outs in northeastern Afghanistan got under way Tuesday as the Pentagon challenged persistent reports that the effort to flush Osama bin Laden from his rumored bunker complex in the mountainous region has caused widespread civilian casualties.
Afghan forces trekked into the rugged foothills of the White Mountain range, which quaked under heavy airstrikes for the fourth day in a row. U.S. bombers have relentlessly pounded the snowy mountains near the hamlets of Mawal and Tora Bora, where U.S. intelligence reports suggest that bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida network have taken refuge in a multistory underground bunker built during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The airstrikes killed 15 al-Qaida members early Tuesday, anti-Taliban officials said. Commanders in nearby Jalalabad also said they had received word that bin Laden's personal physician and lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, was injured in a bombing attack in the nearby Granjli valley. But U.S. officials said they could not confirm the report and privately voiced skepticism.
Zawahiri, a 50-year-old Egyptian physician and founding al-Qaida member, is believed to be bin Laden's most important aide. A brilliant and forceful intellect, Zawahiri reportedly provides much of the ideological and strategic grounding to bin Laden's war against the West.
Pentagon: Targets were intended
As many as 2,000 al-Qaida fighters fled to the Tora Bora hideout last month as the Taliban's grip on northeastern Afghanistan crumbled. Many of the cornered fighters are Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and other foreigners whom Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called "fanatical dead-enders," apparently determined to fight to the death.
At the Pentagon, officials reiterated that they have been unable to confirm reports that the bombing of apparent al-Qaida hideouts had killed dozens of Afghan civilians and said the targets bombed by U.S. forces were the intended ones.
Senior Defense officials speculated that the dead might include relatives of Taliban and al-Qaida members.
Although the combination of U.S. airstrikes and opposition ground troops has swept across every major city in Afghanistan except for the Taliban's spiritual stronghold of Kandahar in the south, pockets of resistance continue to threaten allied forces.
The small gatherings present heightened risks for anti-Taliban fighters and the 1,500 to 2,000 U.S. Special Forces and other ground troops, Rumsfeld said.
A U.S. soldier was shot in the chest Tuesday while assisting opposition forces near Kandahar, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., reported. The soldier, whose name was withheld, was in stable condition.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. Marines based less than 80 miles from Kandahar had begun destroying communications links used by the fading regime, declining to elaborate on their methods. But Rumsfeld all but ruled out binding the estimated 1,200 Marines in the region to Pashtun opposition groups in a ground battle to take Kandahar.
Anti-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan fighting to capture Kandahar's airport ran into heavy resistance for the third straight day Tuesday, managing to fight their way inside the airport perimeter but failing to subdue a large group of Arabs defending the facility.
Yusaf Pushtoon, an aide to anti-Taliban commander Gul Agha Shirzai, said their fighters had pushed their way into a southern corner of the airport and occupied a guard tower before dark Tuesday. He said three members of Shirzai's force had been killed in fierce fighting Monday and and that the advance was moving extremely slowly to avoid further casualties.
"Resistance is very stiff," Pushtoon said. "There are hundreds of Arab defenders, and they are fighting extremely hard."
As fighting raged on the ground, U.S. warplanes bombed the airport with some of the most intensive airstrikes of the campaign, apparently in an attempt to weaken the Arab defenders.
In the northeast of the country, the opposition fighters began a cave-by-cave search for bin Laden.
"We must start the war against these people," said Haji Mohammed Zaman, commander of anti-Taliban forces in northeastern Afghanistan. Before sending soldiers, the commander dispatched tribal elders to entreat al-Qaida to abandon the mountains. By Tuesday, he said, the talks had fizzled. "Practically," he said, "we must fight."