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American Morning

Fight Against Al Qaeda Network Not Confined to Land; Abrupt Collapse of Taliban Control in Kandahar Leaves Power Vacuum and Civil Disorder

Aired December 07, 2001 - 07:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The fight against the al Qaeda network is not confined to land. For more on what the U.S. is doing at sea, we are joined now by CNN national security correspondent David Ensor. He joins us from Washington this morning.

Good morning, David.


Well, Pearl Harbor Day is perhaps an appropriate day to point out that the navy is playing a very important and rather intense role at times in the battle against al Qaeda. They are querying ships, for example, in the North Arabian Sea as they exit from Pakistani ports like Karachi and some of the other ports just north and west of there. They are looking for al Qaeda leaders who might be seeking to flee the area.

Now, the word querying sounds gentle. It isn't so gentle. The U.S. has warned shipping in the area that if they see any sign of an unwillingness to cooperate, there can be firing on the ships. Those ships can be sunk.

Now, so far navy officials say they have not had to do anything like that. They are simply querying. They are watching closely. Intelligence officials in the ports checking who is on those ships, what are they carrying and so on.

Intelligence officials say there are a number of ships and shipping companies, in fact, that are either owned or managed by known al Qaeda associates. This intelligence coming both from the U.S. and from Norway, which follows shipping very closely. In recent years, the al Qaeda organization, according to U.S. intelligence officials, has used smaller, older freighters, fishing boats and yachts to transport around the Middle East area, around the North Arabian Sea, a variety of cargo ranging from weapons to supplies to personnel. And some of these boats are very small, Arab daous (ph) and so on.

So the U.S. is paying attention to every kind of vessel, no matter how humble, that is in the area of the North Arabian Sea or the Persian Gulf area. And as I say, they have not, according to officials just late last night, they've not had to board or sink anybody yet, but they do stand prepared to -- Paula. ZAHN: Is there any evidence to suggest any of these vessels are personally owned by Osama bin Laden?

ENSOR: Well, as a matter of fact intelligence officials say that in the mid-'90s there were suggestions, there was intelligence suggesting that Osama bin Laden himself owned a couple of vessels. In the interim, however, one of them sank and another was sold. They don't believe at this point that he himself owns any ships.

ZAHN: David Ensor, thanks so much for that report.

As Taliban forces begin surrendering in Kandahar, one major question is what has become of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. So far there has been no sign of him.

Well, the focus of military action is now squarely on the al Qaeda fighters dug into the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan. It is suspected that Osama bin Laden may be holed up there in an elaborate complex of caves and tunnels. Afghan opposition forces on the ground, aided by U.S. heavy bombers overhead, are reported to have made some advances into the Tora Bora region.

CNN's Brent Sadler is there with a battlefield report -- Brent.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Paula. Sorry, are you talking to me?

ZAHN: Yes. Please carry on with your report.

SADLER: All right, thanks.

It's been a very dramatic day here. It's the end of the day here in the foothills of the White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan. Tora Bora is behind me just as the sun is setting south of Jalalabad, behind me over there.

It's been a day when we have seen intense American air activity over this area, very many hours of heavy American bombers dropping their ordinance in positions held by al Qaeda, we're told, in the foothills and the valley leading up to the Tora Bora mountain fortress.

Now, it was interesting that these air strikes were going on at the same time as it appeared that advances were being made, slow advances, by the anti-Taliban forces who have been gathering here over the past few days and pushing forward against al Qaeda positions.

It does appear at the end of this day that a first line of defense has crumbled from al Qaeda and that they have been driven further up, higher up those mountains behind me.

Now, we have not been able to go much further forward than about two or three miles beyond this position, but we're certainly told that al Qaeda have left some of their belongings scattered behind, ammunition, cars and so forth. We've been told that another cave, a large cave, has been captured by the anti-Taliban forces. Many caves, they say, have been captured. We're yet to have to see visual evidence of that.

A very important development also happened, it seems, several hours ago. We were able with a very special long lens to get some photographs, some pictures of what appears to be a deployment of special forces, unidentified special forces moving with guides, an armed group of men with guides and pack animals loaded with equipment heading up the valley towards Tora Bora, that happening at the same time as there was continuing and perhaps the heaviest bombardment by U.S. warplanes since the beginning of the anti-Taliban ground offensive just three days ago.

Back to you, Paula.

ZAHN: Brent, hopefully you can hear me. Clearly, there was an interview published in the "New York Times" today with the new defense minister of the newly formed Afghanistan government, where he said that Osama bin Laden is definitely in Tora Bora and he went on to tell these reporters that not only can he find hiding places in this very complicated maze structure, but that if he felt too much pressure from the United States, it would make easy access to what they described as the porous border with Pakistan.

How much discussion is there of that possibility?

SADLER: That's a red hot question, actually, Paula, because just a short time ago I was speaking to Hazarat Ali, who is the commander of many of these troops who are inching their way up to Tora Bora. And he was saying that the al Qaeda people up there, commanders had been contacting the anti-Taliban forces this day, asking them to give them more time -- five days was the amount of time mentioned -- so that al Qaeda can have enough time to pack up and move out of there and move across those mountains behind me -- that, in fact, marks the border with Pakistan -- to give them breathing space, to halt the offensive, so they could escape.

And they're saying no way will that happen. This offensive continues.

Back to you, Paula.

ZAHN: Brent Sadler, thanks so much.

The abrupt collapse of Taliban control in Kandahar has left a power vacuum and civil disorder.

CNN's Nic Robertson has the very latest from Spin Boldak, Afghanistan -- good morning, Nic. What is the latest from there?


We've just crossed the border into territory that was until a few hours ago controlled by the Taliban. It is now controlled by a group of the tribesmen. They have put up in this border town green, red and black flags. These are the flags showing their loyalty to King Zahir Shah. The situation in this town now is somewhat chaotic, but there is a sense of order here, nevertheless. This building we're standing on now was until just a few hours ago the Taliban passport office. Now, just a few hours drive further down the road from where we are standing now is Kandahar City. In that city earlier today, Mullah Naqib took control.

That was a negotiated surrender by the Taliban to Mullah Naqib. He has been joined in that city by other tribal forces coming in from the north and also coming in from the eastern edge of the city. Those forces belonging to Guiligahr (ph) and other tribal leaders.

Inside Kandahar earlier today, our sources told us the situation was extremely chaotic. They talked about widespread looting. However, through the day they say that the situation has stabilized. A sense of normality is returning and there is celebrity gunfire, people firing guns into the air. Also, there are cars driving through the city, again, waving the red, green and black flag, showing their loyalty to King Zahir Shah.

Here in Spin Boldak, negotiations have been going on since the early hours of the morning between the Taliban and different tribal groups. Spin Boldak itself has now been divided between three different tribal groups. They now control this town that was, until a few hours ago, in Taliban control.

ZAHN: All right, Nic, a question about Mullah Omar. As you know yesterday it was widely reported that he, in fact, had asked for amnesty. The U.S. government is adamantly opposed to that. There are reports this morning that he is missing. Is there anything you can add this morning that would either shoot those reports down or clarify them?

ROBERTSON: Well, all recent indications are that Mullah Omar has gone into hiding, that he's been taken to a secret location. It's also widely believed that he has remained in the Kandahar region. The reason people believe that is because in the -- because key officials, when they've gone to meet him, they've gone in the direction of Kandahar. They've gone to Kandahar City. And they've come back with response from him very quickly, an indication that he is believed to be somewhere close to Kandahar.

However, Mr. Hamid Karzai, who last night said, who is now the head of Afghanistan's interim government, who negotiated the Taliban surrender of Kandahar, said last night that he did not know where Mullah Mohammad Omar was and he has said again today his location is still unknown.

But what Mr. Karzai has also said now, clearing up some concerns about the original announcements about the terms of the surrender, he has cleared that up and he has said that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, should be found and tried for -- in fact, he says he's had his opportunity to denounce terrorism. He has failed to meet a deadline for denouncing terrorism and he should now be charged along with other Taliban leaders for allowing terrorists to operate inside the country and also for bringing so much destruction and mayhem to the country during his period of rule.

ZAHN: Nic Robertson, appreciate that update.

Once again a reminder to all of you that Nic Robertson was one of the first correspondents into this area that was just freed by opposition forces.