December 16, 2001
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Last Al Qaeda position falls,
Rumsfeld meets Karzai

Dhananjay Mahapatra in Kabul

Anti-Taliban fighters on Sunday declared they have taken the last positions held by Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda fighters in caves and tunnels of Tora Bora mountains but said they had no information about the terror mastermind even as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a surprise visit to the Bagram air base near Kabul to meet the top Afghan leadership.

"We have cleared Al Qaeda from our land. We did the job," declared Haji Mohammed Zaman, the military commander in the eastern Afghan province of Jalalabad, where the Tora Bora mountains are located.

Answering a question from reporters near Tora Bora, Zaman said he had no information about the whereabouts of bin Laden who along with 300-1,000 fighters was believed to be trapped in the valley from three sides and pursued by American and anti-Taliban troops.

The valley is situated south of Jalalabad city and close to the Pakistan border. A local Afghan spokesman told BBC that 50 Al Qaeda fighters took the route to Pakistan on donkeys through the high mountain passes.

Zaman's claim, which could not be independently confirmed, came a day after US officials confirmed 'with reasonable certainty' that bin Laden was heard giving orders to his fighters in Tora Bora last week.

Rumsfeld, who arrived at Bagram air base on a surprise visit after visiting the three central Asian countries of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, told reporters, "We continue to receive mixed messages (about Laden)."

He said Laden, if captured, would be taken to a secure location and interrogated. President George W Bush would decide whether to try Laden in a military tribunal.

The US defence secretary was told to confine himself to the tarmac of the air base, which has not been totally cleared of mines.

The precaution came after three US marines were wounded during a mine-clear operation at Kandahar airport where one soldier accidentally stepped onto a mine setting off an explosion, which injured two others.

Earlier, American B-52 bombers pounded the suspected hideouts of bin Laden and his followers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan with increased intensity as anti-Taliban forces hopped from cave to cave and tunnel to tunnel killing 200 Al Qaeda men and capturing 25 in the ground operations, tribal commander Hazrat Ali said.

Rumsfeld said the bombing of bin Laden's suspected hideouts had been so intense that one plume of smoke travelled as far as two kilometres.

He said US troops have found a 'large take' of materials from a suspected chemical, biological and nuclear weapons centre near Kandahar, the fallen headquarter of the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

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