Last al-Qa'ida troops in cave complex 'ready to surrender'

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The Independent Online

Al-Qa'ida fighters defending Osama bin Laden retreated yesterday to their last mountain hideout in eastern Afghanistan after US bombs shattered caves in the Tora Bora complex.

The last few hundred "Arabs", as al-Qa'ida's non-Afghan forces are known, are holed up in a small area in the extreme south and, according to mujahedin commanders, are ready to surrender.

The units, which were attacked over the weekend with the most powerful conventional bomb in the US armoury, a 15,000lb weapon known as a "daisy-cutter", contacted the mujahedin yesterday by walkie-talkie to discuss surrender terms.

Mohammed Zaman, the tribal Eastern Alliance's defence chief, declared a truce and demanded al-Qa'ida men walk out of the Tora Bora and Melawa valleys by 8am today or face new attacks.

The advance of the mujahedin troops allowed journalists to see for the first time inside the cave where it is believed Mr bin Laden had been hiding. Last night, however, mujahedin commanders said they were no longer sure if he was in the area

"We have captured 12 or 13 caves since yesterday," said Haji Zahir, one of three main local commanders. One set of "caves", nestled in an elbow between two mountains, is now a pitiful sight, no more than a group of huge gouges in the ground and on the sides of the hill, perhaps on average 30ft in diameter. They are filled with broken stone, smashed wooden beams and military equipment.

A hand-written inscription on the dull green metal casing of the remnants of an American cluster bomb read: "For those whose dreams were taken, here are a few nightmares, D."

One crater held the remains of a primitive gymnasium; light-blue circular free weights in varying sizes, a lone boxing glove, torn discarded items of clothing, a gashed boot, several toothless combs and loose rounds of ammunition littered the ground around the caves.

Mohammed Naim, who was part of the mujahedin's attacking force said: "No Arabs were captured alive. We threw grenades into any cave we found to make sure that everyone was dead." He believes that about 30 caves in all were taken.

The strongest and largest cave complex, high on the last mountain in al-Qa'ida hands, is still defended by diehard fighters. But many have slipped away, possibly including Mr bin Laden himself. "Until today I was sure he was there," said Hazarat Ali, a senior local commander. "But now I don't exactly know if he is there."

Meanwhile, an Australian man who trained with al-Qa'ida fighters in Afghanistan has been captured by the Northern Alliance. The 26-year-old also trained with Islamic groups in Kosovo and Pakistan. Members of the man's family in Australia have been interviewed by security authorities.