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Archive for Saturday, December 8, 2001

U.S. forces pursue remnants of Taliban

December 8, 2001

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— U.S. forces are battling the remaining armed Taliban fighters as the war's commander ponders how to finish off the radical Islamic militia and its al-Qaida terrorist colleagues.

U.S. and rebel troops Saturday continued to search eastern mountains where suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. There was new evidence that family members of a top bin Laden aide were killed in earlier bombing.

The Marines stationed near Kandahar Saturday reported they were starting to concentrate more on finding al-Qaida fighters.

"We are searching for members of the al-Qaida, not regular Taliban soldiers," said Marines spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton. "We hope the Taliban lay down his arms and goes his merry way."

The whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remained unknown Saturday. He has been reported missing since the fall of Kandahar.

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai called on fellow Afghans Saturday to capture Omar and bin Laden and pledged to bring the two men to "international justice."

Only a month ago the Taliban controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and considered bin Laden its honored guest.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, said more American ground troops in Afghanistan are possible, as is a move for the U.S. Marines at a base near Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold before it fell to rebels Friday.

Franks said Friday that Marines attacked fleeing Taliban fighters from the air and ground around Kandahar, but he offered few details. The Taliban are legitimate targets so long as they are armed, he said, but he had seen no evidence that large numbers of armed Taliban had fled the city.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Prince Saud Faisal told The Washington Post that his nation expects to take custody of any Saudi citizens captured in Afghanistan and punish those who were "criminally involved." Saudis are thought to be among the al-Qaida terrorists still at large in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the United States continued its airstrikes on the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan where anti-Taliban fighters believe bin Laden is hiding. Just in case he flees, the Navy, with the help of French and British sailors, is interdicting ships to prevent al-Qaida members from escaping by sea.

U.S. sailors and Marines from the USS Shreveport amphibious ship boarded and searched a merchant vessel "suspected of carrying al-Qaida associates" in the North Arabian Sea on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Friday.

Since the interdiction program began about two weeks ago, roughly 200 vessels have been approached _ contacted by radio or other signal and asked to identify themselves and their cargo.

Thursday's action off the coast of Pakistan was only the fourth time a suspicious ship had been boarded, Lapan said. Its cargo was checked, and as in the three previous boardings, no al-Qaida were found.

The effort is being intensified after intelligence sources discovered the al-Qaida organization owns or controls some two dozen ships whose whereabouts are unknown, said two defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The family of Ayman al-Zawahri, a top bin Laden aide, published a death notice in Friday editions of an Egyptian newspaper, saying al-Zawahri's wife and children had been killed in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials and others previously had said there were credible reports that members of al-Zawahri's immediate family were killed in a U.S. airstrike.

Franks said the situation in Kandahar was confused and likely would remain so for a few days. By then, he said, he may be ready to make decisions about shifts in his approach to completing action against the Taliban leadership and supporting Afghan opposition forces trying to root out bin Laden.

Among the possibilities being considered:

Moving the 1,500 Marines from their base southwest of Kandahar. They began arriving there from Navy ships in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25 and this week began cutting off Taliban resupply and escape routes. Franks said that he'll decide in the next few days "whether we want to keep all of our forces positioned just as they are right now or whether we intend to shift some of their locations."

Adding more ground forces. "I will simply say that the possibility of increasing forces on the ground is certainly on the table," Franks said. In addition to the Marines, there are several hundred Army special operations forces spread throughout Afghanistan. There also are about 1,000 members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Sending the Marines into the city of Kandahar to root out remaining Taliban or al-Qaida fighters. "I will not say that we anticipate the Marines going into Kandahar," Franks told reporters. "I would simply leave it on the table. We certainly have not ruled out the possibility of the Marines going into Kandahar."

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