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U.S. 'reasonably certain' it heard bin Laden radio call

Forces close in on al Qaeda

Tora Bora
Osama bin Laden may be hiding in this area where bombing is heavy  

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is "reasonably certain" that one of the voices it has been monitoring on battlefield radios in eastern Afghanistan is that of Osama bin Laden, a U.S. official said Saturday.

The announcement comes as Eastern Alliance fighters, aided by U.S. special operations troops and air power, have contained al Qaeda fighters in two valleys near Tora Bora, cutting off their access to supplies of food, water and ammunition. A possible escape route to Pakistan is blocked by thousands of Pakistani troops massed along the nearby border.

U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, described the al Qaeda force Friday as being between "a hammer and an anvil."

CNN correspondents traveling along the front line said no gunfire had been heard from al Qaeda positions early Saturday.

On lower ground CNN's Ben Wedeman said he had heard talk of a possible surrender of some al Qaeda fighters, but had seen no indication that such an event might be imminent.

CNN's Nic Robertson says Alliance forces are circling in on al Qaeda members in the Tora Bora area (December 15)

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Wedeman, who has twice spoken with al Qaeda members by radio, was unable to contact them by radio Saturday, but he reported that he overheard radio conversations that indicated al Qaeda forces were low on ammunition.

"They sound stressed," Wedeman said. "They don't sound like they're having a good time."

In an another radio conversation, Wedeman heard a panicked call for medical assistance shortly after a U.S. bomb hit. The correspondent also said he heard an al Qaeda member order another to change to the radio channel of the sheik -- a possible reference to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

U.S. officials have said publicly they do not know Bin Laden's whereabouts, but they have said privately they believe he is in the Tora Bora area. Preparations are under way, however, to search for him in other areas of Afghanistan if he proves not to be in the east.

Speaking to reporters on a plane en route to Central Asia, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said more than 230 bombs were dropped on cave and tunnel complexes in the area Thursday and at least 180 more bombs were dropped on Friday. A recent infusion of U.S. troops in the area has allowed U.S. planes to step up their assault, Rumsfeld said.

"We have special operations and Special Forces people in there, and they are doing a good job of targeting," he said.

The intense aerial and ground attack has led to the capture of at least 50 al Qaeda troops, he said. Wedeman reported that a large number may have been killed as well.

In other Afghanistan news, U.S. Ambassador James Dobbins is en route to Kabul to reopen a U.S. liaison office. He is expected to arrive Sunday.

And John Walker, the captured American who had been fighting with the Taliban, has been transferred from the U.S. Marines' Camp Rhino in southern Afghanistan to the aircraft carrier USS Peleliu. Walker will remain on the ship until officials decide how to dispose of his case.

-- CNN Correspondents Brent Sadler and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.


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