By Chris Tomlinson
TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Afghan tribal fighters backed by intense U.S. airstrikes overran some al-Qaida cave hide-outs at Tora Bora today and set a deadline for the surrender of a group of fleeing members of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.
After making a last stand on a wind-swept mountain top, hundreds of foreign fighters tried to escape a relentless tribal advance but were trapped by shelling in a rocky canyon. Some pleaded for mercy and said by radio that they were ready to give up. During the assault overnight, U.S. special forces were seen heading for the front.
Mohammed Zaman, defense chief for the tribal eastern alliance, declared a cease-fire and demanded that the al-Qaida force walk out of the Tora Bora and Milawa valleys in eastern Afghanistan by 8 a.m. Wednesday (7:30 p.m. PST today) or face a new attack. He said they must submit to international prosecution.
The whereabouts of bin Laden, who U.S. officials suspected was in Tora Bora, remained unclear. Another tribal commander claimed local intelligence officers spotted the Saudi-born dissident with al-Qaida troops in the area Monday, but no independent verification was possible. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the best indications point to the area, although admitted the reports are “not very reliable.”
“I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Tomorrow we may know,” Zaman said of bin Laden.
Today’s advance on Tora Bora coincided with the three-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that Washington says were masterminded by bin Laden. Washington has posted a $25 million reward for him.
It was unclear how much of the extensive cave complex at Tora Bora had been captured and whether any al-Qaida personnel were still hiding within. It was also far from certain whether all al-Qaida forces around Tora Bora would surrender. In the past, forces loyal to bin Laden have vowed to fight to the death.
Zaman agreed to the truce after a radio conversation with a number of al-Qaida fighters in the Afghan Pashtun language, monitored in part by an interpreter working for The Associated Press. It was followed by a face-to-face meeting between his officers and al-Qaida commanders.
The al-Qaida fighters “called me, they said, ‘Please don’t fight us, we want to surrender,’ ” Zaman said.
Zaman said the al-Qaida members agreed to surrender in small groups, but he was skeptical if all would disarm peacefully.
“We’ll give them to the United Nations. I asked them whether there were any women and children. They said they were only young men,” Zaman said. “Tonight we will make a plan to get them out.”
The contact came after Hazrat Ali, a senior commander with the tribal eastern alliance, said his forces had taken one of two peaks on Enzeri Zur mountain. Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters – mainly Arab and foreign Muslims – had made a stand there after being flushed from their cave shelters overnight by massive U.S. bombing and raids by U.S. troops.
Shelling and machine-gun fire echoed across the valleys as B-52s and U.S. surveillance aircraft circled above. U.S. helicopters were also sighted.
Afghan troops said dozens of heavily armed U.S. soldiers were seen headed to the front late Monday and that small arms fire was heard during the night. The Americans returned before dawn today to a camp in the nearby village of Pacir.
“We were successful. We captured a lot of caves,” Ali said as his troops staged mop-up operations. “The largest ones were full of documents and personal belongings.
Ali said fleeing al-Qaida troops had been trying to head south to escape into Pakistan. Other commanders said retreating fighters might head along the Kharoti Pass, a high and often snowbound track through the 15,400-foot White Mountains that leads south into Pakistan.
Pakistan intelligence officials said their country has blocked all possible escape routes for bin Laden or his men by deploying 4,000 troops along a 25-mile stretch of border in the White Mountains and enhancing aerial surveillance.
Eastern alliance forces launched a three-pronged assault against al-Qaida defenders on Monday following days of intense U.S. bombing, including 15,000-pound “daisy cutter” bombs used to attack caves and underground command centers.
By this morning, the assault transformed what had been al-Qaida’s main base in Afghanistan into a scene of devastation.
One hilltop overlooking the battlefield had been flattened. Trees were reduced to ashes and the ground was littered with shrapnel and bits of cluster bombs. Stone buildings and bomb shelters were destroyed. Mountainside caves that sheltered fighters from airstrikes for weeks were abandoned.
A sniper nest on top of a ridge contained three dead al-Qaida fighters, their bodies shredded by heavy machine gun fire. Outside an al-Qaida gun training center, paper targets from the National Rifle Association littered the ground complete with names and scores written in Arabic.
Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines stepped up their hunt for fleeing Taliban fighters by widening their operations near the city of Kandahar.
The Marines began searching for weapons at checkpoints in the south. “If we see weapons, we collect them and identify them” by serial number, then destroy them, said Capt. David Romley. He did not say how many weapons, if any, had been seized so far. Taliban fighters who surrender their arms will be allowed to go free; those who resist will be killed, he said.
Although U.S. officials have described Tora Bora as bin Laden’s most likely hiding place, they also have said he and fugitive Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar could be sheltering somewhere around Kandahar.
The Taliban surrendered Kandahar on Friday to tribal forces.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported that residents of Kandahar buried at least 50 bodies of Arabs fighters killed in U.S. strikes near the airport. The report could not be verified.
Marines from a base in the desert 70 miles southwest of Kandahar moved closer to the city Monday to move more quickly against any Taliban and al-Qaida movements.
In other developments:
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