Bin Laden 'trapped in mountain cave with escape routes blocked'

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Osama bin Laden and his hardcore al-Qa'ida fighters appear to be making their last stand, trapped in a mountain cave in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan, under intense American bombardment and surrounded by advancing mujahedin fighters.

Up to 100 British and US special forces commandos were also yesterday involved in close-quarter fighting that left two injured.

Today, the al-Qa'ida resistance appeared to be crumbling as Afghan fighters captured groups of bin Laden supporters, and reported that they had seen small groups fleeing across the nearby border into Pakistan.

On radio frequencies of the Eastern Alliance, one fighter said 60 Chechens had fled, leaving behind six of their wounded as well as many dead. He asked his commander, Hazrat Ali: "What do you want us to do with them?" Commander Ali said they should be held while he sent in reinforcements.

Front-line commander Mohammed Khan said three captured Arabs told him 50 al-Qa'ida leaders fled on mules early today toward the Pakistani border, only a few miles away. "They are commanders, but not the top commanders. They are escaping one by one or two by two," he said.

Commander Ali said: "Al-Qa'ida is finished in Melawa and Tora Bora. We have got them surrounded and they can't get away. There is a special cave inside and I think Osama bin Laden is there. The mujahedin have blocked the routes to Pakistan. We are going to search the cave and we hope to capture Osama."

He said the "Arabs" of the al-Qa'ida organisation ­ who include Chechen fighters and a number of Taliban ­ had been driven into a confined area on a high ridge above the Melawa valley and had no chance of escape.

If mujahedin intelligence is correct, what promises to be the final large-scale confrontation of the war in Afghanistan is reaching its climax. A great deal is at stake ­ several hundred lives, including those of women and children said to be with the al-Qa'ida fighters, and the $25m (£17m) bounty offered by America for the capture of Mr bin Laden.

Throughout yesterday afternoon, as warplanes continued to bombard the al-Qa'ida position, Commander Ali spoke by radio to the besieged fighters, urging them to surrender. They replied with machine-gun fire.

Two American commandos were removed from the front line when they were grazed by machine-gun fire. Those left behind used a laser device to "paint" the al-Qa'ida position, which was then hit by an American bomber. An Afghan fighter said: "Everything was destroyed. There was one dead person. The body was in the branches of a tree."

The drive up to the mujahedin's forward position presented a stark view of the battle. At several places along the winding track were mortar positions abandoned by the al-Qa'ida fighters as they retreated into the mountains.

One stretch of the journey passed through a ghostly forest, branches stripped from the trees by cluster-bombs whose yellow pods lay scattered on the ground. Commander Ali and his men have occupied two mud-brick huts on a ridge where the Arabs had lived. Below are caves captured by the Taliban, from which mortars, machine- guns, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition have been seized. Above and beyond is the upper ridge, which was wreathed for much of the day in the smoke of exploding bombs.

In some caves, Afghan forces found blank American and European passports, religious books and letters.

Said Mohammed Pahlawan, another frontline commander, said: "There is a special cave that is safe from bombardment. We have seen the place and we're trying to reach it. We've blocked all the routes to Pakistan and now they are surrounded completely."

Mujahedin commanders estimated there were only about 180 al-Qa'ida fighters left on the ridge. A few days ago, they put the number at 700, suggesting that many of those previously hiding in the White Mountains have fled or been killed. Two surrender deadlines passed this week after al-Qa'ida forces insisted on giving themselves up to UN officials only.

Commander Ali could be heard on the radio speaking to a Taliban commander named Marajuddin, who is with the al-Qa'ida force. The two agreed to speak in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, to prevent any eavesdropping by al-Qa'ida. "If you remain with the Arabs and you don't surrender, then you are a second Osama," Commander Ali said. Marajuddin responded: "Give me until 10 o'clock tonight. I will completely disarm the Arabs of all their guns." By early this morning, however, there were no reports of any such surrender.

Despite Commander Ali's confidence, there was still uncertainty over the whereabouts of Mr bin Laden. The mujahedin have done nothing to discourage reports that he is with his fighters in Tora Bora, but there has been no evidence.

The United States seemed to be less confident last night that Mr bin Laden was within its grasp. President Bush said: "He may hide for a while, but we'll get him," repeating that he wanted the al-Qa'ida leader "dead or alive, either way". He added: "I don't know whether we're going to get him tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now. I don't really know but we're going to get him."

According to some reports Mr bin Laden has escaped to Pakistan, leaving one of his sons behind to lead the Arab fighters.