Fighting between NATO forces and insurgents has erupted in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora, best known as the rugged labyrinth where Osama bin Laden evaded U.S. capture nine years ago.
The Western military and Afghan officials said Wednesday that the district of Pachir Agam, in the eastern province of Nangarhar near the Pakistan border, had become a staging ground for Taliban and other fighters preparing attacks on NATO and Afghan troops.
At least five Taliban fighters, including two men identified as local commanders, were killed in a NATO airstrike Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, officials said. The raid was part of a campaign to dislodge insurgents from the area. NATO said no civilians were present.
The provincial police chief, Ali Shah Paktiawal, said the two commanders, identified as Shir Zaman and Zhir Gull, oversaw “terrorist operations” in the district.
The NATO force said in a statement that the insurgents were believed to be coordinating the actions of suicide bombers and possibly planning an attack on a border post. It said a cache of weapons that included assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades was recovered after the strike.
Together with Afghanistan’s south, the country’s east has been a focal point of a U.S. military buildup in recent months. Numerous militant groups are known to operate in the area, including the Taliban, the Haqqani network and fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda. All find refuge in Pakistan between strikes at the NATO force, officials have said.
Bin Laden’s escape from a Western and Afghan manhunt in December 2001 still rankles U.S. officials, who believe his capture would have changed the course of what has become a long and draining conflict. This year has been the deadliest of the war, with nearly 500 American troops killed.
Tora Bora has long been synonymous with missed opportunities. Last year, a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asserted that the Al Qaeda chieftain could have been captured with a better-coordinated assault on the cave-riddled mountain stronghold.
Paktiawal, the provincial police chief, said Wednesday that Western and Afghan military operations were continuing in the district of Chaparhar, adjacent to Pachir Agam. A separate raid Tuesday night resulted in the breakup of a 20-member ring responsible for setting roadside mines and the arrests of two other commanders from Pachir Agam, he said.
Four more insurgents were seized Wednesday in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar, the police chief said, including one believed to be a Pakistani national.