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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Keeps Pressure on Al Qaeda

Afghanistan: Bombers target area in east where militants are repeatedly trying to rearm and regroup, Pentagon says.

January 08, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Surviving leaders of the Al Qaeda terrorist network are repeatedly trying to regroup at a warren of caves and bunkers in eastern Afghanistan, despite three attacks on the complex in four days by U.S. warplanes, senior Pentagon officials said Monday.

The most recent strike on the Zhawar Kili al Badr training camp, late Sunday night, hit tanks and artillery, officials said. But military intelligence analysts say they believe the camp, which snakes down a narrow, winding desert valley near the town of Khowst, still harbors terrorist militants.

It is the same site hit by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 in the Clinton administration's unsuccessful attempt to strike at Osama bin Laden and his top aides. It includes a number of caves built into the valley's sheer cliff walls and is difficult to eradicate, said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We bombed again yesterday," Stufflebeem told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Monday. "But we're not done there. . . . Something's coming out of the ground. And we're after it."

In discussing the repeated strikes on the training camp, and on other suspected terrorist hide-outs in recent weeks, Stufflebeem painted a picture of small bands of Al Qaeda loyalists on the run throughout Afghanistan but persistently seeking to rearm and regroup where they can.

"They are obviously widely dispersed," Stufflebeem said. "They are attempting to regroup so that they can amass for leadership and mischief purposes. . . . They're just trying to find each other and then, obviously, to continue their war."

Warplanes also struck Sunday in Khowst, about 10 miles from the training camp, destroying what Pentagon officials described Monday as a small cache of antiaircraft weapons. Khowst is known as the headquarters of a former minister in the ousted Taliban regime, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is wanted by the U.S.

The strikes in Khowst and at the Zhawar Kili training camp were among 118 sorties flown by U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan on Sunday. The aircraft involved included one B-52 and two B-1 bombers, one Navy F/A-18 jet fighter and one low-flying AC-130 gunship, Pentagon officials said.

The Pentagon has been particularly intent on striking Zhawar Kili, hitting it with 250 bombs last week alone. But Stufflebeem denied reports that Bin Laden was believed to be hiding at the compound.

Stufflebeem said the camp, composed of three separate training areas and two cave complexes, has drawn attention because it is a particularly large Al Qaeda command center. Some Al Qaeda fighters might have gravitated there from Tora Bora, the site of heavy bombing by U.S. warplanes in December.

"There are obviously still Al Qaeda and pro-Taliban [fighters] that are loose there, and we're continuing to find them, and we're continuing to strike their equipment as we've found them," Stufflebeem said.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces continue to take Taliban and Al Qaeda members into custody. The total number of detainees stood at 346 on Monday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.

Several senior members of the Taliban had surrendered, including three ministers in the old regime, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar province told the Reuters news agency today.

"Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us," Khalid Pashtoon said. "Among those who surrendered were former Minister of Defense Mullah Obaidulla, Minister of Justice Mullah [Nooruddin] Turabi and Minister of Mines and Industry Mullah Saadudin [Sayed]."

Stufflebeem would not say how many senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were in U.S. custody. "We know senior leadership is being detained. We know senior leadership has been killed. And we know senior leadership is not yet in [U.S.] custody," he said.

More than 1,000 troops, most of them military police and construction crews, were deployed over the weekend to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to beef up security at former refugee camp sites that are being transformed to hold the prisoners.

Also Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Afghanistan, the first Western head of government to visit Kabul since the attacks on New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and he promised Afghans that the world will not forget them.

Speaking at Bagram air base north of Kabul, Blair said the consequences of past neglect have been grave.

"Afghanistan has been a failed state for too long, and the whole world has paid the price--in the export of terror, the export of drugs and, finally, in the explosion in death and destruction on the streets of the U.S.," he told a news conference at the base.

Blair flew into Bagram in the dead of night on a British Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transport with his wife, Cherie, and about a dozen British government officials.

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