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Opposition closes in on al Qaeda at Tora Bora

Afghan fighters watch smoke rising from U.S. bombing raids Friday near Tora Bora.  

TORA BORA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Al Qaeda forces in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan faced a fresh onslaught of U.S. bombs early Saturday as opposition fighters closed in on their positions, U.S. military officials said.

Eastern Alliance forces moved south from two valleys at Tora Bora, while Pakistani troops guarded the nearby Pakistan-Afghanistan border to the south. Those movements have "contained" several hundred al Qaeda troops -- and possibly the group's leader, Osama bin Laden -- in an increasingly small area, said Gen. Tommy Franks.

"We will maintain pressure on this pocket of al Qaeda until they are ours," said Franks, the chief of U.S. forces in Southwest Asia.

U.S. warplanes dropped between 230 and 240 bombs on area caves and tunnels Thursday and at least 180 on Friday -- an escalation of strikes aided by an infusion of U.S. special operations troops, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

Shooting, advancing

U.S. Marines secured the airport in Kandahar and are working to fix it up for military operations. CNN's Mike Chinoy reports (December 14)

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Hamid Karzai spent his first day in Kabul attending meetings meant to ease tribal tensions as he prepares to assume power. CNN's Jim Clancy reports (December 14)

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On the ground, Afghan troops traded machine-gun fire with al Qaeda fighters, advancing more than a mile on Friday, the secretary noted.

Afghan commander Hazrat Ali said the Eastern Alliance -- a coalition of tribal forces that took control of the area after Afghanistan's Taliban collapsed -- are cutting down the area in which al Qaeda forces can operate. Al Qaeda has suffered heavy casualties and is essentially finished, Ali said.

Bin Laden, he said, is probably in a "special place" -- a bunker or a cave.

More than 50 al Qaeda fighters surrendered Friday as U.S. forces combed through caves to collect intelligence, Rumsfeld said.

But al Qaeda fighters interviewed Friday said their morale was high and talk of surrender was untrue. "We are well and good," an al Qaeda fighter said over a radio.

Marines in Kandahar airport

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In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, hundreds of Marines rolled through Kandahar early Friday en route to the city's airport. Aided by local forces, the armored convoy of more than 40 vehicles moved through the city center before securing the airstrip, located about 10 miles away, without incident.

A Marine advance team began combing the buildings to further secure the facility, clear the runway and remove explosives such as unexploded bombs and shells, said Brig. Gen. James Mattis, task force commander in charge of the operation. The move, the largest tactical operation since the Marines set up Camp Rhino three weeks ago, was "smooth and faster than expected," said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Chris Hughes.

U.S. Special Forces had taken control of the Kandahar airport in recent days as the United States bolsters its operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban -- and the hunt for its leaders. One U.S. official said intelligence reports indicate that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is in Helmand province west of Kandahar.

Mattis said he had been in touch with the new interim government leader, Hamid Karzai, and that the operations were conducted with the full support of anti-Taliban groups.

Several hundred Marines have been flown in from ships in the Arabian Sea to replace colleagues at Camp Rhino, Rumsfeld said.

-- CNN Correspondents Brent Sadler, Ben Wedeman and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.


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