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Saturday, 22 December, 2001, 12:31 GMT
Up close at Tora Bora
Opposition fighter
Opposition forces now control the area
Hilary Andersson

This week, American and British special forces have been scouring the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan for bodies - in the hope finding some of Al Qaeda's leaders.

This follows the victory of anti-Taliban Afghan troops in the area who, with the help of a campaign of US bombing, captured Osama Bin Laden's entire cave network in the area.

B-52 trails
B-52s leave trails in the sky
We pitched our tent on top of a rounded hill, behind an Afghan tank which had its guns trained straight on the Tora Bora hills ahead. We set our equipment up for broadcasting. These were to the most surreal few days.

On the first night, American planes roared overhead - B52s, giant birds, with wings outstretched - carrying their lethal cargo of bombs weighing up to 500 lbs each. Then came the impact.

First the hillside would light up in a big red ball of flames. Seconds later, the sound would travel the mile to us - at first we would shudder.

Then it would come again, and then again, and then again, every 20 minutes, as the hill tops and Osama Bin Laden's caves were blasted to kingdom come.

There were sounds like the scraping of an immense rake - as carpet bombs ripped through the valleys. The next day it continued throughout. And that night. And the day after too.

Blast
Tons of bombs fell on the hillsides above the cave network
By a miracle of technology, we were able to log into the internet by satellite phone from our tent, lit only by a gas burner. There we watched Osama Bin Laden reflecting contentedly on the events of 11 September.

The monstrous sounds around us, emerging from the black starlit night in this remote corner of the world, felt at last like vengeance.

The temperature was freezing. The mountains before us were capped in snow and ice. In these hills were thousands of men, sleeping rough at night, many without the right clothes, and no food and water.

Al-Qaeda cornered

At night whilst trying to sleep, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been one of Osama Bin Laden's fighters, with enemy planes overhead, on the run. And those hills - some on fire - what was left of them?

One of the tanks by our tent growled into action.

Opposition guerrilla inspects a small cave at Tora Bora
Opposition fighters are taking no chances
The Afghan fighters launched a massive ground assault. Tora Bora fell. The hills went eerily quiet, as the American bombing eased for the first time in days.

Then came our chance to try to get inside Osama Bin Laden's captured cave network - his infamous and intricate tunnels system - his den, his lair.

Our cars crawled up the hills to a captured base, hidden deep in a ravine. The entire area was full of mammoth craters, made by the American bombs. From our camp we had seen this very place being blasted.

The metal casing of a cluster bomb more than six feet long lay in strips. An American soldier had written on one "This is for making me miss my son's birthday".

The al-Qaeda camp looked like an innocuous patch of hillside from above, but if you peered closely enough there were small round holes visible in the earth. We went inside the caves.

The first was only big enough to sleep about five men. A pair of trousers lay outside, abandoned in a hurry.

Devastation

Stacks of heavy calibre machine gun bullets, lay scattered on the ground. Another cave was far bigger.


It crossed my mind that there could be fighters hiding in there, waiting for their moment to escape

In it, there was tank shells and mortars blocking the entrance to a tunnel that went deep underground.

The Afghan fighters who had captured the base told us that the tunnel went back for several miles into the mountain - linking this cave up with others.

But they dared not go down the dark passage for fear of booby traps or mines. It crossed my mind that there could be fighters still trapped or hiding in there, waiting for their moment to escape.

The villagers around said Osama Bin Laden used to sleep at this base often. In the pitch black, I peered out - this was his view of the world. Trapped and enclosed in blackness and cold.

I wondered what would have driven him to live like this. Power I suppose, and an extreme faith in his mission. He really had a substantial private army, evidenced by the burnt out tank we saw, and the enormous amounts of ammunition.

al-Qaeda prisoner
A shattered al-Qaeda prisoner contemplates defeat
The base we visited had proper positions, a commander's post - it was probably home to hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters.

The local Afghan soldiers told us he was last seen here three months ago - that would have been just after the World Trade centre attacks.

Our guards began bristling with irritation and shouting at us. We were taking too long. Several times that day they had cocked their guns at us.

British and American special forces were working in the area - and didn't want us there. We left, snaking down the road they say was built by Bin Laden, passing a burnt-out car the locals thought was his.

The sun began to set. It cast an orange glow on the distant mountains, which loomed majestically into the sky and spread across the horizon.

The sky was brilliant blue, until a vicious dust storm blew in, like one I've never seen before, forcing us to cover and bow our heads, and to try to walk against the wind.

Somewhere out there are al-Qaeda's leaders - maybe even Osama Bin Laden himself. If he hasn't escaped to Pakistan or elsewhere, he will be battling these winds too, and worse.

See also:

14 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Endgame at Tora Bora
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