The U.S. military today dropped a 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb on the mouth of a cave where key al Qaeda leaders were suspected of hiding, as American forces stepped up their bombing of a mountainous region believed to be the hideout of Osama bin Laden.
It was not known exactly who was in the cave or how much damage the bomb did, but a Pentagon spokesman said the weapon — which incinerates everything within 600 yards and has been used rarely in the 2-month-old Afghan campaign — was sure to have a "negative effect" on anyone hiding nearby.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the bomb was dropped on the cave because "it was believed that that's where some substantial al Qaeda forces would be, and possibly including senior leadership."
When asked whether that senior leadership might include bin Laden himself, Stufflebeem smiled and said, "It certainly would be hopefully so."
With the surrender of the last Taliban-held province, Zabul, over the weekend, the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan forces that had been fighting to overthrow the hard-line Islamic regime have turned much of their focus to tracking down al Qaeda forces still hiding in the country.
Particular attention has focused on the mountainous region of Tora Bora, south of Jalalabad, where there have been reports that bin Laden and senior al Qaeda members are hiding.
American bombers began hitting the region hard just after sunrise, softening the way for the Northern Alliance to try to take out the al Qaeda forces that have sought refuge in the mountains. Northern Alliance commanders said 2,500 troops were ready to take part in the assault.
One Northern Alliance commander said the bombing raids had already driven bin Laden loyalists from their hideouts.
"There is repeated day and night bombing. All of Tora Bora has been taken by our mujahideen. The enemy is on mountain tops between Tora Bora and Waziri Gorge," Hazrat Ali said.
"Osama may be there too," he added. "He was seen five days ago and an Afghan prisoner who we have confirmed it too. Osama has set up new caves and [an] underground protection system on top of these mountains. His people are putting up extremely tough resistance."
But the al Qaeda loyalists answered the assault with mortar fire and machine guns from their ridge-top positions, trying to hold off the attackers. The anti-Taliban tribesmen were using Soviet-era T-55 tanks left over from the 10-year Afghan war Moscow waged against the mujahideen.
"It's pretty intense fighting and pretty intense activity," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said today. "There are a lot of reports [of] a fair amount of action up there. Fighting remains fierce. ... It's tough.
"The remaining people who are continuing to fight, who are continuing to resist, are pretty hard-core," Clarke said, adding that there is no reason to believe that "this is close to the end."
Sealing Off the Exits
Pakistan has sent thousands of troops to the country's border region near Tora Bora to try to prevent bin Laden or al Qaeda troops from fleeing Afghanistan.
According to an Iranian radio report, people living in the village of Tora Bora saw and recognized bin Laden and eight of his supporters fleeing to the Nangarhar heights on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The radio quoted Mohammad Habeel, a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, who said that after his main base in Tora Bora had been captured by anti-Taliban forces, bin Laden fled toward Pakistan.