Three Marines from the 15th Expeditionary Unit scan the horizon yesterday from their Afghan desert base, Camp Rhino.
- Associated Press

December 10, 2001
-- Osama bin Laden's cohorts are trying to use a mule-trail escape route into Pakistan to board tiny boats hidden off the southern coast - and the U.S. military fears some have already succeeded, Pentagon sources said.


Secret al Qaeda documents and captured members' confessions also reveal that new training camps are being established in Yemen, Indonesia and Somalia to breed terrorists and house Afghan escapees.


Amid heightened fears that some al Qaeda members have already fled, Pakistan yesterday rushed to send hundreds of extra soldiers and armed helicopters to the mountainous border region near bin Laden's hideout yesterday to cut off any mule-trail border crossings.

Meanwhile, a U.S. naval operation, using the elite Navy SEALs and submarines, is under way in the Arabian Sea off Pakistan in a bid to track five boats suspected of carrying desperate al Qaeda members and arms, Pentagon sources told The Post.

A directive has been sent to shipping companies in the Middle East, warning that any refusal to allow U.S. troops to board vessels will result in "the destruction of the commercial vehicle," one Pentagon source said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers said the U.S. military has already boarded "a couple of ships" off the Pakistani coast after receiving information that al Qaeda members were aboard, but has had "no luck so far."

Despite some of his family members and soldiers fleeing, bin Laden yesterday was leading about 1,000 of his most hardened soldiers in a last stand to defend his bomb-blasted mountain hideouts in eastern Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, a Northern Alliance spokesman said.

"Osama himself has taken the command of the fighting," the spokesman, Mohammad Amin, said. "[They] have now dug themselves into the forests of Spin Ghar after we overran all their bases in Tora Bora."

As waves of U.S. B-52 heavy bombers and smaller warplanes pounded Tora Bora, Myers said U.S. officials knew "in general" where bin Laden was.

But the Pentagon fears al Qaeda operatives are getting out through Pakistan.

A total of 105 pickup trucks carrying Taliban members and officials have entered Pakistan at three border crossings since Thursday, according to a senior Pakistani official in Chaman.

Two weeks ago, a group of Yemeni women related to one of bin Laden's wives was stopped and held while trying to cross into Pakistan.

They reportedly admitted to Pakistani security forces that members of bin Laden's inner circle were trying to escape by ship.

Pakistan's spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is believed to be filled with Taliban and bin Laden supporters, raising U.S. concerns they could help ease passage through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.

Myers said that if bin Laden were able to escape, he'd go to "his second most favorite country."

Pentagon sources said Myers was referring to Yemen - the birthplace of his father and home of his fourth wife.

The secret documents seized from al Qaeda and Taliban safe houses across Afghanistan reveal that Hadhramautt, a remote valley in eastern Yemen, is one of four places where new terror camps are being established.

A west European intelligence official said Yemen is a particular concern.

"It may be the next step for bin Laden. The central government can't control the tribes and, with bin Laden's family connections in the region, there could be Yemenites willing to die for him," said the official.

Two camps are believed to be in Indonesia - one in Aceh, in northern Sumatra, the other in the eastern Moluccan Islands.

Al Qaeda has also built a logistics and training base in Somalia.