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From terror camp to ghost town
No one is left to tell what happened here. But one day in the last few weeks, couriers of death struck Al Qaeda's terrorist camp in this stone-faced ravine. They left nothing standing, no cave intact, and by the time the U.S. bombers turned for home, the primitive facility had become a ghost town.
The camp, covering perhaps 25 city blocks, had a training field and firing range, several bunkers for storing ammunition and clusters of caves that apparently served as both home and classroom for Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis who came here to hone their skills in the art of mayhem.
From defensive shooting positions inside stone parapets, one could look onto the Milawi Valley below and no doubt feel secure in the knowledge that the place was remote, difficult to reach overland and well fortified. The caves' walls were reinforced with stone, the ceilings with wood beams. Up the road was a command post with a machine gun.
Foreign journalists reached the flattened camp for the first time Tuesday. Most of the caves appeared to have taken direct hits from U.S. bombs and collapsed in on themselves.
The occupants who fled, or were buried in the rubble, left behind scores of canisters of small-arms ammunition. A Russian-made tank at the mouth of one cave had been destroyed, and strewn about the area were shredded school notebooks with Arabic entries, articles of clothing, and trees that had been sheared in half.
The caves, like most in this snowcapped mountain range, weren't particularly elaborate. They were about 20 feet deep and 3 or 4 feet wide, and they appeared designed primarily as bomb shelters.
Militia commanders fighting Al Qaeda said their troops, not U.S. and British special operations forces helping them, were the first to enter the caves after bombing attacks.
"We went into one cave Sunday," said one commander, Hazobellah, who, like many Afghans, has only one name, "and some of the Arabs were crying and others were yelling in Arabic, which I don't understand. One Arab started to pull the pin on a grenade to blow us all up. We shot him and captured five others."
Deeper in the mountains, the caves that senior Al Qaeda members used were reportedly more sophisticated. Many were interconnecting, with secret escape exits. The cave used by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader, has been described as resembling an underground hotel, with a long hallway leading to numerous rooms. It lies in Ghryeki Khiel Mountain, six hours from here on a donkey, through fields of snow and dense forests.
Sayed Mohammed Pahlawan, a senior militia commander, said Bin Laden's cave is now in the hands of anti-terrorist forces. Although he denied that U.S. or British forces were in the Tora Bora area, skeptics doubted that the plastic bottles of Poland Spring water from Maine that are littering the mountains had come from Al Qaeda or Pahlawan's moujahedeen fighters. U.S. Special Forces troops were said to have already scoured the cave complex to collect documents and intelligence.
Several Americans in civilian clothes were seen near the Al Qaeda camp above the Milawi Valley on Tuesday. One was entering a cave across a riverbed from the camp, and another stopped in his four-wheel-drive vehicle at the former command post above the camp. Asked by a journalist what his mission was, he replied, "This sure is a beautiful place."
For the first time in two weeks, no fighting was reported in the Tora Bora area Tuesday. U.S. warplanes continued to patrol the skies overhead, but tribal militiamen encountered no resistance as they continued to search the caves for the final holdouts from Bin Laden's private army.
Few commanders believe that the fleeing Al Qaeda troops will return to their defensive positions: With their sanctuaries destroyed, there's no reason to come back.
On the track leading to a rear staging area, an old Russian-made tank rumbled down the mountain, away from the battlefield. Asked why it was leaving Tora Bora, crewman Abdul Salem said, "Our commander said the war in Tora Bora was over, so we are pulling back."
Commanders hold out little hope that Bin Laden is still in Tora Bora. Increasingly, they believe that he may have slipped into Pakistan, a two-day walk from his cave complex.
The path he would likely have taken is the same one that moujahedeen once used to resupply themselves in Pakistan during their war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Hazrat Ali, one of three tribal chieftains who directed the Tora Bora battle for the anti-terrorist side, was asked where he thought Bin Laden was. He replied, "Only God knows."