SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A Yemeni doctor who treated wounded al-Qaida fighters at Tora Bora in Afghanistan has confirmed Osama bin Laden was at the mountain stronghold as U.S. and Afghan forces attacked – and said the al-Qaida chieftain seemed concerned about only his own welfare.
Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi told a military panel at Guantanamo Bay that he carried out amputations with a knife and scissors in the caves of Tora Bora during the siege in late 2001 and had to abandon patients several times when B-52 bombers flew overhead.
Batarfi said he was forced to treat the al-Qaida fighters and was not a terrorist himself. Desperate to escape the bombings, he said he asked to see the commander of forces at Tora Bora because he wanted to learn how to escape. Two weeks later, he was summoned to a meeting – and found himself face-to-face with bin Laden, whom he had met once before in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
The rare insider’s account of the siege of Tora Bora is contained in transcripts obtained Friday from the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act. The transcript is of a hearing at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Batarfi – who was arrested after the siege – is being held.
Batarfi said bin Laden was at Tora Bora for only two days and that the al-Qaida leader felt he had no way to slip away from approaching U.S. and Afghan forces.
But instead of American troops being sent into Tora Bora to rout out bin Laden, Afghan forces went in, and came up empty. The Bush administration has been criticized for not getting bin Laden when it had the opportunity, though senior administration officials have repeatedly said commanders did not know for sure whether he really was at Tora Bora.
Batarfi confirmed he met with bin Laden for about 10 minutes.
“He came from behind the trees and I assumed there was a cave nearby that secured his place,” Batarfi said. He added that bin Laden would limit meetings to 45 minutes. Batarfi said he told bin Laden that conditions at Tora Bora were terrible and that because of bombardments and attacks by helicopter gunships if they did not leave “no one will stay alive.”
“Most of all the total guns in the Tora Bora area was 16 Kalashnikovs and there are 200 people,” Batarfi told the Guantanamo military panel, which was weighing whether to release the detainee, in broken English. “He did not prepare himself for Tora Bora, and to be frank he didn’t care about anyone but himself.
“He came for a day to visit the area, and we talked to him, and we wanted to leave this area. He said he didn’t know where to go himself, and the second day he escaped and was gone.”