23 bodies exhumed in Tora Bora Mountains

Graves thought to hold senior al-Qaida fighters, possibly bin Laden guards

May 08, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Canadian troops and U.S. criminal investigators working at a grave site in the Tora Bora Mountains have exhumed 23 bodies that they suspect are those of al-Qaida fighters, perhaps a security contingent for Osama bin Laden.

The bodies, buried in graves near the village of Al-e-Khel, might be those of senior lieutenants or security guards of bin Laden who were killed in an airstrike Dec. 15, said Lt. Col. Patrick Stogran, who conducted the search.

"I am hopeful that it was bin Laden himself, but the chances are he wasn't there," Stogran said. "I think the best we can hope for is that they were some of his key players, some of his senior lieutenants," he said, after he and his troops returned to Bagram air base, just north of Kabul.

Villagers told the soldiers they had collected the bodies after the airstrikes and buried them on a small knoll near the village. The villagers reported that there was one "very big man" among them, who had been buried in the most prominent position and wired with explosives.

The Canadians swept the graves for booby traps.

U.S. investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the army Criminal Investigations Department measured the shrouded corpses, also taking hair samples for DNA testing from each. Bin Laden is known to be over 6 feet tall, and none of the bodies appeared to match that height, Capt. Philip Nicholson, the commander at the site, said.

The bodies were then reburied where they were found. The DNA samples will be sent to the United States for analysis, Stogran said.

Four hundred troops of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry spent four days scouring the high ridges of the Tora Bora range, opening caves sealed by bombings to look for bodies.

On Dec. 15 al-Qaida fighters were spotted fleeing the village toward the valley floor, possibly to a cave. U.S. planes fired on the group and killed a number of fighters, Nicholson said.

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