Bin Laden overheard giving orders from cave

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Osama bin Laden has been heard giving orders to his beleaguered fighters – adding to speculation that he too is pinned down in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains as coalition and opposition forces encircle their position.

US officials said yesterday they had intercepted radio traffic within the past few days on which Mr bin Laden was heard speaking to those al-Qa'ida fighters trapped with him. "They have picked him up on very short-range radio," a senior US official told the Washington Times, whose story was confirmed last night by other official sources.

Mr bin Laden's voice was detected by US special forces soldiers fighting alongside opposition forces leading the hunt for the Saudi dissident. The officials said they had used electronic voice-testing equipment to assess the recordings they had made, and had "reasonable certainty" that it was Mr bin Laden.

As the hunt for the al-Qa'ida leader continues, there has been speculation that he may have already escaped. Some experts said yesterday that even if the voice "fingerprint" was genuine it does not mean he had not recorded it earlier for it to be played back over the radios to deliberately confuse the opposition forces.

"It is standard military procedure to play spurious radio traffic when a unit withdraws," said David Isby, a military analyst.

Meanwhile, after weeks of relentless bombing, around 50 al-Qa'ida fighters yesterday gave themselves up while others were debating whether or not to surrender. Another 20 were killed in firefights.