- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan Afghan tribal forces backed by intense U.S. air strikes overran some al Qaeda cave hide-outs at Tora Bora yesterday and trapped a group of Osama bin Laden's foreign fighters, who said they wanted to surrender.
After making a last stand on a wind-swept mountaintop, hundreds of foreign fighters tried to escape a relentless tribal advance. But when shelling trapped them in a rocky canyon, some contacted tribal commanders by radio and pleaded for the chance to give up.
Mohammed Zaman, defense chief for an alliance of tribes in eastern Afghanistan, called a pause in fighting and gave al Qaeda forces until this morning to surrender or face a new attack. He said they must submit to international prosecution.
Mr. Zaman agreed to the truce after a radio conversation with a number of al Qaeda fighters. It was followed by a meeting between his officers and al Qaeda commanders.
The al Qaeda fighters on the radio said, "Please don't fight us, we want to surrender," Mr. Zaman said.
American AC-130 gunships blasted the area late yesterday ahead of the deadline as the Pentagon cautioned that the fight was not yet finished around Tora Bora, located in the 15,400-foot White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The whereabouts of bin Laden, who U.S. officials suspected was in Tora Bora, remained unknown. Another tribal commander said local intelligence officers spotted the Saudi-born dissident with al Qaeda troops in the area Monday, but no independent verification was possible.
Pakistan intelligence officials said their country had deployed 4,000 troops along a 25-mile stretch of border nearby and stepped up aerial surveillance to block escape routes for bin Laden or his men.
Yesterday's advance on Tora Bora coincided with the three-month commemoration of the September 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 not clear how much of the extensive cave complex at Tora Bora had been captured and whether any al Qaeda personnel were still hiding within.
Mr. Zaman said he was skeptical that all the fighters would surrender peacefully. In the past, forces loyal to bin Laden have vowed to fight to the death.
The al Qaeda radio plea to surrender came after Hazrat Ali, a senior commander with the eastern tribal alliance, said his forces had taken one of two peaks on Enzeri Zur mountain. Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters mainly Arab and foreign Muslims had made a stand there after being flushed from their cave shelters overnight by heavy U.S. bombing and raids by U.S. troops.
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 later. The Americans returned before dawn yesterday to a camp in the nearby village of Pacir.
"We were successful. We captured a lot of caves," Mr. Ali said as his troops staged mop-up operations. The largest ones were full of documents and personal belongings.
Ammunition lay scattered on the ground, and posters of Palestinian militants adorned some walls. When bin Laden's forces abandoned the caves and bunkers, the raiders were happy but careful in case the sites had been booby-trapped.
They ventured into the cave mouths as far as daylight carried, shouting for anyone still inside to surrender. There was no reply.
Most of the caves were small, extending maybe 30 to 40 feet into the mountainside, with some entrances as large as a door and others just big enough to crawl through.
There were no signs of bedding or cooking utensils, suggesting the fighters lived elsewhere, perhaps in other, deeper caves.
Eastern alliance forces launched a three-pronged assault against al Qaeda defenders Monday after days of intense U.S. bombing, including 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bombs used to attack caves.
By yesterday morning, the assault transformed what had been al Qaeda's main base in Afghanistan into a scene of devastation.
A sniper nest on top of a ridge contained three dead al Qaeda fighters, their bodies shredded by heavy machine-gun fire. Outside an al Qaeda 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 and searching Afghans for weapons at checkpoints.
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 hiding somewhere around Kandahar.
The Taliban surrendered Kandahar on Friday to tribal forces.
The new Kandahar governor, Gul Agha, said his militiamen would begin scouring the countryside for Mullah Omar and other Taliban fugitives once he restored order in the city.

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