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CNN Live Event/Special

Afghan Fighters Crush Al Qaeda's Mountain Stronghold

Aired December 11, 2001 - 20:00   ET



In eastern Afghanistan, Afghan fighters crush al Qaeda's mountain stronghold and issue an ultimatum: surrender or die. CNN's Brent Sadler with an exclusive look inside the caves of Tora Bora.


BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A first glimpse inside this rocky fortress, abandoned ammunition, Osama bin Laden's network of terror in Afghanistan coming apart.


ANNOUNCER: Concern in Kandahar, as CNN's Nic Robertson asks, did the Taliban departure come at a price?


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: "I'm not happy because of the stealing. People are worried," he says. His cousin, Mue Bullah (ph) joins in. "You can't get peace because everyone has a pistol."


ANNOUNCER: And the amazing opulence of Mullah Omar. He lived in luxury while many Afghans went without.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: They are wide eyed as they show us his marble and pastel painted mosque. And inside, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, plush carpets and a mirrored wall.


ANNOUNCER: CNN's Christiane Amanpour tours the cleric's compound.

Live from Afghanistan, Christiane Amanpour.

AMANPOUR: Good morning from Kandahar, where the new leader designed to help Afghanistan take its first tentative steps towards peace and stability is vowing never again to let this country become a safe haven for terrorism.

And it appears in eastern Afghanistan, one last stronghold of the al Qaeda network may be about to crumble. They have been given a deadline of two and a half hours from now to lay down weapons.

Joining us live from Tora Bora is Brent Sadler with the showdown there.


SADLER (voice-over): The start of a decisive Afghan attack on al Qaeda's mountain stronghold. An old Soviet tank leads the charge. Determined Afghan warriors follow in it's wake. Their objective: to crush al Qaeda's hold on these mountaintops once and for all.

With the help of a U.S. airstrike, Eastern Alliance tanks bombard al Qaeda ground, but they're not finished yet. Al Qaeda machine gunners spray the hillside. We're caught in the middle of it. Journalists huddle as bullets whiz by.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, Brent. Back here, come on.


(on camera): This is where the siege of Tora Bora is being won and lost at ground level. Allied coalition forces and their Afghan allies on the ground are up against formidable terrain, natural fortifications, which are helping al Qaeda defenders.

(voice-over): But this is the day for a breakthrough. Afghan attackers are urged to join battle, their own distant machine gunners within site of the enemy, al Qaeda's fortifications crumbling. The hunted are killed, their bodies collected from the mountain side. If al Qaeda surrenders, the battles could stop.

SADLER (on camera): Is al Qaeda finished now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is al Qaeda finished? No.

SADLER: What about Osama bin Laden?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will see tomorrow. If he is really up in the mountain, he must get out.

SADLER: Well, here it is. Finally, the first close up visual evidence of the devastating impact of the aerial onslaught. A main al Qaeda base obliterated, this whole area riddled with a complex of now abandoned caves, tunnels, and trenches.

(voice-over): A first glimpse inside this rocky fortress, abandoned ammunition, Osama bin Laden's network of terror in Afghanistan coming apart. This al Qaeda base is a wasteland of splintered trees and giant bomb craters. A destroyed tank was an obvious target for U.S. bombers. The Afghans scavenge through the rubble. Body building weights from this former training camp, a boxing glove, and a gun target. A grueling but effective day, with the battlefield ultimatum to al Qaeda: Surrender now, or die.


(on camera): In just over two hours from now, Eastern Alliance commanders will make contact with al Qaeda leaders on the other side of the mountains behind me in darkness here. Their tanks, the Eastern alliance tanks, were blasting in the early hours of this morning. Just before coming on air, Christiane, we heard a loud explosion and saw an orange fireball, airstrikes continuing.

If al Qaeda does not give in, does not lay down their weapons, then Eastern Alliance commanders say they will continue with the war effort. They will press ahead and try and gain further ground today as fighting is expected to continue if that surrender does not take place -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Brent, do you have any idea of whether any of the al Qaeda fighters were captured or were they all killed? Did any of them manage to escape?

SADLER: No, we've had no indication as to whether there are any prisoners of war as such. And I can tell you having seen some of the firefights at close hand, the likelihood is that this is going to be if it's no surrender situation today, certainly a fight to the death. There was no quarter being given by al Qaeda against Eastern Alliance and vice versa. We saw those bodies on the video just then and quite clearly, it's in the minds of Eastern Alliance fighters that they want to push ahead. They want to take land, they will take it however best they can. And if that means killing al Qaeda, they will do just that.

But no indication of any prisoners, but if there are to be any wholesale handover of weapons or any surrender, the Eastern Alliance commander I spoke to said that they would want to see some sort of mechanism put in place whereby they could be handed over to a United Nations authority. Very difficult mechanism to put in place. And also you have to take into account, Christiane, that al Qaeda fighters are spread over a very wide area of the White Mountains. They are not all in one place. And we certainly heard what we thought were C-130 aircraft overhead, possibly gunships, spraying suspected al Qaeda positions. And it's over a wide area. So creating a surrender now in such a short space of time is a tall order -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And do they think, Brent, that Osama bin Laden is in those caves now? Do they think he are closing in on him?

SADLER: Well, we are talking about a lot of ground. We are talking about a lot of caves: small, medium and large. But the commanders on the ground still think there is a chance, they say a chance, a pretty good chance, they believe that Osama bin Laden himself is still up there somewhere, still guiding defensive positions, still urging the men to fight. But there is no certainty of that. However, if bin Laden is up there, then they say they are prepared to take his surrender. They are prepared to take him into captivity. If he has been killed by the fighting or by the aerial onslaught, then they will take his body -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And are they now convinced that they can keep pressing ahead if there is no surrender? You were reporting earlier this week of resistance just over the last couple days, tank and mortar fire from the al Qaeda people there. Are they convinced that they can keep pressing ahead if they don't lay down their arms?

SADLER: Well, I think really depends very much how long, if necessary, the U.S. air strikes continue. Quite clearly, the softening up of those al Qaeda positions after nearly two weeks of aerial bombardments has really shaken those al Qaeda positions, created devastation among the one we saw and clearly there are many other targets up there that have been repeatedly hit.

Now, whether or not al Qaeda is still in a defensive capability remains to be seen. There's clearly many places, not just that area we went to, many other places where they are going to be dug in, well armed and entrenched and it remains to be seen, as I say, whether or not their surrender is going to take place and whether the Eastern Alliance commanders -- and they say they don't want to do this -- whether they are going to go have to go in, possibly with air support and special force operations on the ground, get to clear out these caves and tunnel complexes, valley by valley, one-by-one until they get to the end of the job -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Brent, we will be watching as that situation continues there to develop. Thank you very much from the Tora Bora area.

And Northern Alliance commanders are saying that they have captured an Australian who they say has been fighting with the Taliban. You know, of course, that the Northern Alliance and, in fact, the U.S. forces have in custody an American at Camp Rhino here near Kandahar, also who was fighting for the Taliban. They are debriefing and interrogating him. And we are told by the Pentagon that he is providing useful information. It remains to be seen what the Australian provides once he is debriefed.

As for the Marines and what at they are doing here near Kandahar, they are setting up checkpoints. They have been doing so, making sure that nobody with guns and weapons manages to get past these checkpoints. They're also disarming, seizing and wanting to destroy any weapons that are found in this area except, on what we are told, known non-Taliban fighters.

Here in Kandahar, the most pressing point on people's minds is security. A few days after this town changed hands, was handed over by the Taliban to the new alliance, who vowed to maintain peace here, those people have been spreading out, making new police stations, appointing a new police chief. But, as I say, everybody all over Afghanistan, says that their main priority, what they want most is peace and security. CNN's Nic Robertson took the temperature on the streets of Kandahar.


ROBERTSON: Popular songs mix with the clatter of tailoring in Haffizullah's (ph) store. The music, banned by the Taliban, now a welcomed diversion to the mechanical monotony in the tiny workshop. But the Taliban's departure has come at a price.

"I'm not happy because of the stealing, people are worried," he says. His cousin Mohibullah (ph) joins in: "You can't get peace here because everyone has a pistol. a man came in here with a knife wound." Their friend Usman (ph) sums up their mood.

"If this government is going to give us more disturbance than the Taliban, then we're better off with the Taliban. If not, then they're good."

We leave the Tailor's store when a man loiters close by, with a pistol under his shawl. Armed guards, provided by anti-Taliban commanders, concerned for our safety lead the way.

(on camera): Despite the bustle, this city is still not a safe place, particularly for foreigners to walk around, according to local authorities who say they hope with the appointment of a new police chief, and the reopening of eight police stations to bring security to this city in the next few days, and unless they can do that, the new administration is unlikely to win lasting support.

(voice-over): For now, though, even the new administration in this region still waits for ratification from the interim government. Many here hope they will prove to be effective.

"After the Taliban," Haji Brozar (ph) says, "the situation is better." He says he hopes the new governor can give him his first job in 12 years.

"The Taliban brought us peace," says Aziz (ph), then adds, "and now the new government is going to bring us peace." And why did the Taliban leave? Simple, says Amadullah (ph):

"The U.N. decided to put them out," he says, "And now Hamid Karzai is going to be king, and we'll have peace."

And if their grasp of world affairs seems tentative at best, then ask those that swarm around us, why the curiosity?

"Just watching," says Hashim, "We haven't seen many foreigners."

"Yes," adds Kurjan (ph), "It's good to see them, but they shouldn't come to our country." But it's diminutive Amar (ph) that emerges from the crowd with the thought that unites all here.

"We have been fighting for twenty two years," he says, "and we just want peace."

Nic Robertson, CNN, Kandahar, Afghanistan.


AMANPOUR: And that sentiment can be found all over Afghanistan. When we come back Harris Whitbeck on the hopes and dreams of the people in the capital.


AMANPOUR: It's well into winter now and it is very, very cold in Afghanistan, especially further north in Kabul and further north in northern Afghanistan. In the capital today, there was a fire it broke out when a heater turned over and spilled its kerosene on to the ground and caught a lot those little carpenter shops in a row on Kabul Street on fire. We tell you this story, because it was very difficult to put that fire out. There is no proper fire fighting equipment. Just one indication of how much Afghanistan needs just to take a few steps back on to its feet again. And to that end U.N. officials are now in Afghanistan.

The senior U.N. envoy for Afghanistan is there to discuss the future of that country, the future of the government, which will take place at the end of next week. And how to maintain the small steps towards peace and security that are now being consolidated.

CNN's Harris Whitbeck, reports from Kabul.


HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.N. special envoy arrived in Kabul to make sure everything is ready for Afghanistan's big day, December 22, when a new interim government will be installed.

Lakhdar Brahimi says it is an opportunity the country should not miss.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN: They have a golden opportunity, perhaps never to come again of availing themselves of this goodwill. And political will to help them, and support a process that will bring peace, security to them and will provide resources for reconstruction.

WHITBECK: He also met with Northern Alliance officials about the issue of security for the new administration. A multinational security force was agreed to in the Bonn accords, the Northern Alliance defense minister was clear in saying its role will be limited.

GEN. MOHID FAHIM, CMDR. IN CHIEF N. ALLIANCE: There is no need for more than 1,000 U.N. peacekeeping soldiers. The peace of Kabul city will be maintained by Afghan security forces. U.N. peacekeeping forces should take care of the security of the meetings about entering government and Loya Jirga process.

WHITBECK: Brahimi's visit, and the impending installation of a new government, have begun changing the way Afghan people think of their leaders.

Every morning Abdul sets up shop, in a park across the street from the defense ministry, in Kabul, pen and paper ready. Dozens of clients come to see him. They pay him to write petition letters to be presented to government authorities. A modern-day scribe, Abdul contributes in his own way to what he says is a new relationship between the power and the people in Afghanistan.

"People feel freer to approach the leaders now," he says, "they feel they can communicate their needs, but the problem is there are so many people they can't all reach the leaders when they want to." On this day Abdul is helping former military officers fill out forms they hope will allow them to get back jobs taken from them during the Taliban regime.

"I'm not the only one," says Hamidulah (ph), "everybody is sure the new government will fulfill all our hopes and expectations." Prospects for peace now seem as close at hand as ever.

(on camera): The promised political changes are generating a new kind of excitement in Afghanistan. For the first time in over 20 years people here dare to dream of a stable government. But even the proponents of the new plan, recognize that stability will not be easily achieved in a land so used to war.

Harris Whitbeck CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.


AMANPOUR: Now, Hamid Karzai is the new leader designate of Afghanistan's interim government. He is here in Kandahar, but he plans to travel to Kabul later this afternoon, Wednesday afternoon Afghan time, to meet with other officials there and hammer out the modalities of forming this new interim government.

In the meantime, Hamid Karzai is billeted (ph), housed here at what was Mullah Omar's compound, the leader of the Taliban who has now fled. We got a look around that compound and it raised a few eyebrows, we'll have that when we come back.


AMANPOUR: When regimes collapse, it's often interesting to see the lifestyles, how the strong men lived. There was Marcos of the Philippines. There was Mobutu of Zaire, and Ceausescu of Romania. And now, Omar of Afghanistan. We got a look at Mullah Omar's compound. And his lifestyle seems to have been a lot better, a lot more comfortable, than the Taliban's pious pronouncements would have led to us believe.


(voice-over): In a stunning setting in the foot hills of Kandahar's mountains, Mullah Omar's compound offers a few surprises. In the driveway of the man who ordered the ancient Bamiyan buddhas destroyed, this bizarre sculpture. None of the new occupants knows quite what it is.

"My gut feeling", laughs Abdul Jaleel Mujahed (ph), "is that it is for the deers to enjoy."

Loyalists of the new Afghan interim leader, Hamid Karzai, are now billeted with him in Mullah Omar's old place. They are wide-eyed as they show us his marble and pastel painted mosque, and inside, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, plush carpets and a mirrored wall.

It is a level of showy opulence that no one here imagined from a man promoted as a humble cleric living in a simple mud-brick house. This large compound is luxurious by Afghan standards. It has been heavily bombed by the United States. But a survey from the roof shows that the mosque and Mullah Omar's bedrooms were unscathed. Here, anti-Taliban soldiers are posing for pictures with their weapons on Mullah Omar's double bed.

Outside, walking through the rubble of the guest and cattle quarters, we see that every room had air conditioning, including the cow sheds, electric ceiling fans to cool the animals. And to drink, running water from these taps. The vast majority of the people in this country don't have access to clean water.

"They built all of this for the cows, while our people never had these things," said Saylab (ph). "This was built with Osama's money, with the blood of the Afghan people."

While most people make due with outhouses and holes in the ground, Mullah Omar had tiled bathrooms with shower fixtures and flushing toilets. He is thought to have fled the comfort of these muraled walls shortly after the air war began. U.S. special forces are believed to have raided the compound for evidence early on. The only evidence found here today suggests a leader who, in the name of God, demanded so much sacrifice from his people, but seemed to suffer none himself.


As we said, Hamid Karzai, the new interim leader for Afghanistan, has taken up temporary residence in what was Mullah Omar's compound. But he promises that as a top priority, he will never allow what he calls foreigners, in this case the Arab mercenaries and Osama bin Laden, to ever be able to take over Afghanistan and use it for the kind of oppression and the kind of safe haven for terrorism that he said the Taliban allowed this country to become.

We will be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: And That's our report tonight from Kandahar. We will be back the same time tomorrow night with more LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.

In the meantime, next, for our viewers in the United States, "THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN", and worldwide, it's "WORLD SPORT".