B-52s bomb caves after al-Qa'ida fails to surrender

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The Independent Online

The United States continued its bombardment yesterday of the cave and bunker systems where Osama bin Laden may be hiding, after his al-Qa'ida fighters refused to surrender the natural fortress in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan.

American B-52s spent all day dropping heavy ordnance, including 1,000lb bombs, on the area. The orange flashes of light and gigantic mushroom clouds of smoke could be seen from several kilometres away before the echoes rattled around the mountains.

Mujahedin commanders had been confident on Tuesday that the al-Qa'ida forces would surrender at 8am yesterday. But the hour passed and a new deadline was set yesterday, giving Mr bin Laden's fighters until today to hand over their leaders – including Mr bin Laden, if he is with them.

"They lied about surrendering,'' Haji Zahir, a senior mujahedin commander, said. "It was a cheat and a fraud to give them time to escape.''

Estimates vary, but the number of fighters who remain in al- Qa'ida's last redoubt is believed to be between 300 and 800. A week ago, there were as many as 1,500 fundamentalist troops in the Tora Bora area. The mujahedin have made significant advances in the past few days, capturing a score of caves and advancing 10 kilometres into al-Qa'ida territory.

"They are surrounded on all sides,'' said Karim Khan, a junior commander fighting near Melawa. "They have very little food and water and all their sources of supply have now been cut off.''

The success of the mujahedin's ground offensive, backed by massive US bombardments, on Monday prompted al-Qa'ida to ask for a truce to discuss surrender on Tuesday. However, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, was sceptical of al-Qa'ida's sincerity and the US bombardment continued on Tuesday night. "One of my mujahedin was killed last night by the American bombing and two more were injured,'' Khan said.

Shamus Hamid, another commander, said: "Before the US bombing was good, but now they are killing our people.'' Last week 18 mujahedin and hundreds of civilians were killed in error by US bombs.

Many al-Qa'ida members are believed to be slipping away. Some have gone south into Pakistan and some west into even more remote areas of Afghanistan.

"The most important people have already run away,'' Shamus Hamid said. "In only two or three days it will all be over.''

Whether Mr bin Laden is in the last mountain held by al- Qa'ida is open to doubt, however. Intelligence sources in the US say they confirmed his presence in Tora Bora yesterday from a recording of a satellite phone conversation made by him from the cave system. Others are more cautious. "We don't know whether Osama is there or not,'' Haji Zahir said.

Fighting by the mujahedin was light, because of the intense US bombardment. However, the fighting continues and the al-Qa'ida members, still heavily armed, have not yet been beaten. Shamus Hamid said three of his soldiers had been killed yesterday and he had seen about 12 dead Arabs after the battle on Tuesday.

About 30 American troops were seen moving towards the front line. Though neither Washington nor the local commanders will comment, they are believed to be conducting a hunt for Mr bin Laden.

Yesterday, crowds of villagers gathered behind the front lines in anticipation of loot after the fall of the cave systems. Mujahedin troops, too, are keen to benefit materially from a successful battle.

"We don't get paid anything,'' said Zaman Sultan, a 22-year-old mujahedin soldier. "We fight because we respect our commander.'' He proudly showed the green cotton jacket that he took from the corpse of an al-Qa'ida member. It had only a little blood on it.

"At least now I can be warm,'' he said.

¿ The President of the United States, George Bush, vowed yesterday to pursue members of the al-Qa'ida network beyond the borders of Afghanistan and to hunt them down in dozens of countries around the world.

"The terrorists who help rule Afghanistan are found in dozens – in dozens – of countries around the world and that is the reason this great nation with our friends and allies will not rest until we bring them all to justice," Mr Bush said, before he signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act at a museum in downtown Washington.