Troops Engage Close to Al Qaeda Hiding Spots

JALALABAD, Afghanistan?Anti-Taliban troops hunting for Osama bin Laden said they clashed Tuesday with al Qaeda fighters near their mountain hideouts in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, Taliban forces pushed tribal fighters back from the airport near the former ruling militia’s last bastion, Kandahar.

In Germany, Afghan factions negotiating a post-Taliban government agreed to form a 29-member council to run the country and set to work on the difficult task of determining who will hold the major posts.

Hundreds of anti-Taliban fighters piled into trucks and set off Tuesday for the White Mountains south of Jalalabad, where local officials believe bin Laden and hundreds of his al Qaeda fighters are hiding. Provincial security chief Hazrat Ali said he was assembling a force of about 3,000 fighters to join the hunt for bin Laden.

“This fight has just begun,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington.

Ali said a patrol of about a dozen men clashed briefly with a group of al Qaeda fighters, who abandoned a tank and scurried off to higher ground. There were no casualties.

Mohammed Zaman, defense chief in Nangarhar province, estimates up to 1,200 al Qaeda fighters are hiding in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, which include the Tora Bora cave complex.

Ali said days of intensive bombing have driven al Qaeda fighters from the main Tora Bora complex and into the higher mountains, where they have split up into groups with as few as 10 men.

Zaman claimed an airstrike late Monday killed bin Laden’s finance chief, known variously as Ali Mahmoud or Sheik Saiid, and injured bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. officials were skeptical of the claim.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not discuss whether American ground troops were actively involved in the hunt for al Qaeda in the Jalalabad area. But he said the Americans “have been actively encouraging Afghan elements to seek out” al Qaeda leaders.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Afghan conflict, has confirmed that the search for bin Laden, sought in relation to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, has focused on the mountains south of Jalalabad and around the Taliban’s southern base at Kandahar.

Marine reconnaissance units out of a U.S. base outside Kandahar have begun probing deep in the desert, moving in off-road vehicles and Humvees.

Capt. David Romley, a spokesman for the Marines’ Task Force 58 at the base, did not specify the teams’ mission, saying only that they were “looking for threats?Any threat is going to be a target.”

The more than 1,000 Marines at the base, set up at an airfield more than a week ago, have not gotten involved in fighting as anti-Taliban tribesman advance from three directions on Kandahar, the last city under Taliban control.

A coalition official, speaking in Pakistan on condition of anonymity, said the Marines were “obviously not a big enough force to take Kandahar,” but would join efforts to prevent the Taliban from escaping.

The Taliban have vowed to defend the city, where their movement was organized nearly a decade ago.

Tribesmen loyal to former Kandahar governor Gul Agha fought their way onto the airport compound a few miles south of the city Tuesday, but were pushed back two miles by about 500 al Qaeda fighters, according to Abdul Jabbar, a tribal spokesman in Pakistan.