WASHINGTON -- U.S. soldiers are keeping their focus on searching mountain caves and tunnels in Afghanistan that once held al-Qaida members as the Pentagon introduces a new weapon to kill those inside such underground complexes.
More American troops will be sent to the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan to help look for clues to the whereabouts of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday. He declined to say how many soldiers would take part.
"Whatever is needed will be sent," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference. "And it won't be just U.S., it will be coalition forces."
It is dangerous work, but "a sense of urgency" compels it, Rumsfeld said. Information gleaned from searches elsewhere inside Afghanistan has led to the arrest of "people across the world ... and undoubtedly have prevented terrorist activities," he said. He declined to elaborate.
Bin Laden, held responsible by the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks, has eluded coalition forces. Military officials had said bin Laden was probably in the Tora Bora area, but they have found no sign of him after al-Qaida largely abandoned the area this week.
"We don't know if he is alive or dead," said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Rumsfeld at the news conference.
President Bush said the United States would help other countries uncover terrorists within their borders. To ensure their capture, Bush said, "We'll be glad to lend some troops."
Military officials said Friday that a U.S. attack on a convoy in eastern Afghanistan hit Taliban leaders, not anti-Taliban tribal leaders traveling to Kabul for Saturday's inauguration of the new, post-Taliban government.
The strike on Thursday included Air Force AC-130 gunships and Navy F-14 and F/A-18 jets from the aircraft carrier USS Stennis, officials said. Ten to 12 vehicles were hit, as well as a compound with command facilities where the convoy originated, military officials said.
"It was a large convoy and there were a lot of people killed and there were a lot of vehicles destroyed," Rumsfeld said.
An Afghan official said the trucks were bringing tribal leaders loyal to the new government to the capital. However, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Maj. Brad Lowell, said American officials had checked and had determined that the convoy was indeed composed of Taliban leaders.
At a separate briefing Friday, Defense Department acquisitions chief Pete Aldridge told reporters that the military is sending a new "thermobaric" bomb to Afghanistan for use against caves and tunnels. The weapon works by creating a cloud of explosive particles that blows up, creating a hot, intense shock wave that reverberates throughout a cave complex.
Military officials rushed the bomb to completion after the Sept. 11 attacks and it was tested Dec. 14 in Nevada, Air Force officials said.
The extra U.S. soldiers sent to search Tora Bora caves could come from several units.
There are about 2,000 U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan, mostly in and around the Kandahar airport. Others that could be tapped for the Tora Bora mission are hundreds of Marines on several amphibious warships in the Arabian Sea, military officials said.
Army troops from the 10th Mountain Division, specially trained for cold-weather operations, could move in swiftly from their current base in Uzbekistan.
Senior defense officials said the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, proposed sending several hundred Marines and possibly a smaller number of Army troops to the Tora Bora area.
Franks is trying to sort out "the balance of missions," said one senior military officer, who noted that some troops must be kept in Kandahar to deal with detainees while others are protecting other areas.
The movement of new forces might not come for several days, said a second military officer, who like the first spoke on condition of anonymity.
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