Al-Qa'ida 'falls apart' as bombs rain on mountain

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The Independent Online

After weeks of relentless bombing, the final pocket of al-Qa'ida resistance was said to be falling apart yesterday as groups of fighters were heard debating whether or not they should surrender. Around 50 fighters gave themselves up, while a further 20 were killed in firefights.

But while the US said coalition forces were continuing to make considerable advances – pushing those fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden into an ever smaller space – there were reports that a number of senior al-Qa'ida figures had escaped into Pakistan. As ever, there was no reliable word on the fate of Mr bin Laden.

The US is well aware that the Pakistan border south of Tora Bora is highly porous, and that it would be possible for al-Qa'ida fighters to slip into Pakistan. One report last week by a news agency close to the Taliban claimed Mr bin Laden had fled over the mountains.

Pakistan has set up 300 army checkpoints along the border to block fleeing al-Qa'ida fighters. "We have made it impossible for bin Laden to enter our country," said the country's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider. Yesterday 31 Arab fighters were reported captured by the Pakistan army as they crossed into the Kurram tribal area.

A senior Pakistani official said the fighters were Yemeni, and that none of them were armed or injured. "They all ran away from Tora Bora area and have been put in a prison in Parachinar."

The question of what to do with captured prisoners is a potential headache for coalition forces, which do not want to release al-Qa'ida fighters – something that is likely to happen to many of the Afghan Taliban forces. One US official in southern Afghan- istan said he expected up to 300 prisoners from the Tora Bora area, and that US marines were building a POW camp at Kandahar airport.

"A primary focus is to receive prisoners from Tora Bora and build a site for them," said the officer, who did not want to be named. "It is in our interest and in the interest of the Western world to capture as many as possible." John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban fighter who surrendered to US forces in Afghanistan, has been moved to the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea, where he is being questioned by intelligence officers. US marines had been holding Mr Walker, 20, at Camp Rhino, their desert base 70 miles from the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

The marines are moving forces into Kandahar, setting up a base at the airport, which they are using to bring in aid and equipment. The marines secured the airport on Friday.