TORA BORA, Afghanistan - American bombers laid a heavy barrage across the snowcapped mountains here early today as efforts to arrange a surrender of embattled Osama bin Laden fighters broke down.
Although a turnover of weapons had been scheduled for 8 a.m., the morning began in confusion as mujahedeen, at first resting on the hillsides, began racing up and down the dirt tracks in pickup trucks stuffed with weapons.
Commander Hajji Mohammad Zaman frantically waved back international journalists who had gathered near forward positions to witness the supposed surrender.
Afghan tribal forces backed by U.S. bombs and commandos had forced their way last night up the slopes of the mountain stronghold of al-Qaida, driving the besieged forces to negotiate a surrender and apparently pushing Osama bin Laden deeper into retreat.
In Washington, a senior military officer said U.S. intelligence had intercepted radio communications among al-Qaida forces talking about bin Laden's location in the Tora Bora area.
"He's in a shrinking area," the officer said, "and the sense is, he's going higher and deeper into his complex of caves and tunnels."
Senior commanders of the hundreds of tribal warriors advancing through the mountains and caves where bin Laden may be hiding had said al-Qaida forces would start to turn over their weapons just after dawntoday. Bin Laden's fate was unknown.
"Until today, I was sure he was available here," said Zaman, who negotiated with al-Qaida commanders. "Now, you know, I don't know exactly. But I didn't ask them."
At least some of the foreign fighters recruited by bin Laden could be heard calling for mercy over their radios after a morning of heavy shelling and fierce ground combat in the bare, brown hills. The fighting left parts of the area once held by al-Qaida a shambles of shattered stone bunkers, gaping shell holes and scraps of military equipment.
Dozens of al-Qaida fighters were killed Monday when a U.S. plane dropped a 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutter" bomb near entrances to the caves, a senior military officer said in Washington. Such bombs are designed to send fire and shards of metal over a wide area.
Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have been sent to the mountains, which rise to 15,000 feet, and in valleys along the border to cut off escape routes for bin Laden and his fighters, Pakistani military officials said yesterday.
Pakistan's army normally maintains a low profile on the border, which is governed by semi-autonomous tribal authorities. But the government has negotiated an agreement with tribal leaders to increase border security.
In a sign that the U.S. military command fears that al-Qaida leaders may try to flee into Pakistan, AC-130 gunships teamed with unmanned Predator reconnaissance drones to prowl above the mountainous border yesterday.
`We don't want to fight'
At Tora Bora, tank, rocket and machine-gun fire echoed through the valleys until a cease-fire was called over the radios just after noon to begin negotiations.
"They said: `We don't want to fight with you; we surrender,'" said Zaman, the defense minister of the region around Jalalabad, the main city in eastern Afghanistan.
The terms of any possible surrender were unclear. It was not known, for example, if the negotiations involved all al-Qaida fighters or if diehards, perhaps led by bin Laden, plan to fight on.
Nor was it clear what would happen to foreigners who surrendered. Some Afghan commanders spoke vaguely of turning them over to the United Nations. It is possible that having bought time, many al-Qaida troops might have crossed into Pakistan.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States expected to take control of some al-Qaida and Taliban leaders, if they are captured alive. "Not hundreds" was how he characterized the number of such potential prisoners.
"Whether we hold these detainees in Afghanistan, as we may in some cases; put them aboard ships at sea, as we may in some cases; return them to their countries of origin for punishment, as we may in some cases; or whether we bring some back to the United States, which we may well do, we will in every case attempt to do it the right way," Rumsfeld said.
Armed U.S. soldiers seen
The attack by the Afghan tribesmen began early yesterday and was backed about 10 a.m. by a heavy U.S. aerial barrage. There was little return fire from al-Qaida troops, who had repulsed earlier attacks by the tribal forces with well-aimed mortar fire. There were no casualties known on the Afghan side and apparently only a few among al-Qaida troops.
A small force of Special Operations commandos appeared to have joined the fighting yesterday. Helicopters were heard flying low over the area Monday night, apparently to land troops or equipment.
An Afghan tank crew member named Safaiullah said he saw a helicopter land with armed Americans, who got into a convoy of six pickup trucks. Several other people reported seeing Americans in the trucks.
One result of U.S. bombing could be seen on the strategic ridge above the Milawa Valley that the tribal fighters captured Monday, at the start of their offensive.
For several hundred yards around a bomb crater, trees were mere black stubs, scorched and limbless. A bullet-riddled pickup truck had its paint burned off to the gray metal. Scraps of clothing and a few shredded pieces of paper with Arabic script indicated that this had once been the site of an al-Qaida camp.
Hyatollah Khuaine, a gray-bearded aide to Zaman, stood near a fighter carrying an old machine gun with a drum magazine. He surveyed the scene, noting almost laconically that the advance against al-Qaida warriors had suddenly become easier. "Now, they are running back," he said.