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Eastern Afghan Leaders to Send Fighters to bin Laden Stronghold

By Susan B. Glasser

washington post -- Jalalbad, Afghanistan

Local leaders in this corner of eastern Afghanistan said Monday that they would send a force of 1,000 fighters to attack the reputed mountain stronghold of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida organization.

After a fourth straight day of bombing by U.S. warplanes at Tora Bora, the network of caves where the U.S. military say they believe bin Laden is hiding, the security chief for Jalalabad’s government said the final offensive against al Qaida would not wait for American troops. The official, Hazrat Ali, said Monday night that the attack would begin within two days.

Tora Bora “is the last center of al Qaida in this country,” Ali said. “It is the strongest center of al Qaeda, and now we want to take it and make it the weakest center of al Qaida.”

Suggesting its own preparations for a major assault against bin Laden’s alleged hideout, the U.S. military has stepped up its bombing campaign in the area in recent days. Local authorities here have reported heavy civilian casualties from the U.S. bombing runs;accounts put the death toll at more than 150. The Pentagon has maintained that only military targets in the area have been hit, but witnesses said hospitals here are filled with dead and injured from villages in the Tora Bora region.

Various sources have reported sightings of bin Laden in the Tora Bora area within the last month, but none of those sightings has been confirmed.

Ali said bin Laden had sent a message through two Afghan intermediaries to local elders, saying he hoped not to have to fight against Afghans. He said he had no hesitation about battling any U.S. or foreign troops sent against him.