TORA BORA, Afghanistan - American and British commandos, operating behind a screen of local Afghan fighters, reportedly had the last remnants of Osama bin Laden's followers - and perhaps the terrorist mastermind himself - cornered here last night in a narrow stretch of a ridgeline, canyons and caves high in the White Mountains.
"Al-Qaida is finished," Cmdr. Hazarat Ali, the ranking Afghan tribal military leader, proclaimed yesterday afternoon, referring to bin Laden's terrorist network. "They are surrounded."
In Washington, the regional commander of American forces, Gen. Tommy Franks, said 300 to 1,000 enemy fighters were caught between Ali's forces and Pakistani border patrols."
`Surrounded' probably is not a terribly good word, but the view of the opposition leaders on the ground is that this al-Qaida force is contained in that area," he said.
As for bin Laden himself, the main object of the American-led hunt, Ali told scores of international journalists assembled at a command post of two stone huts high on the mountain:
"There is one specific cave. We can see it. We are trying to reach it."
One of the heavily armed fighters clustered about interjected: "And we want to capture Osama."
Walkie-talkies hummed through the day with appeals from Ali to al-Qaida fighters to surrender. But they were rebuffed.
"Where is the big guy?" Ali asked an al-Qaida representative at one point during the radio conversation, referring to bin Laden.
"This is not the right time to disclose that," said the main al-Qaida negotiator, Mairajuddin, who is also known as Abu Salahaddin.
Franks said the fierceness of the battle near Tora Bora provided one indication that al-Qaida forces might be shielding bin Laden. But he cautioned yesterday that the Pentagon has received conflicting information from surveillance aircraft, opposition sources and U.S. forces that had made it difficult to pinpoint bin Laden's whereabouts.
He also declined to rule out the possibility that bin Laden had escaped into Pakistan.
"You see all sorts of conflicting information," Franks said. "So it's probably not a good idea to say with some certainty where he is. But we know where our current fight is, and that's in the Tora Bora area."
American warplanes intensified their attacks in that region, dropping 230 bombs and missiles over the mountains Thursday and 180 in one eight-hour period yesterday. After nightfall yesterday, AC-130 gunships guided by Predator reconnaissance drones hammered al-Qaida positions with heavy machine guns and cannon.
The intense American firepower, aimed at forcing the last pocket of al-Qaida resistance into submission, appeared to be working, as about 50 al-Qaida soldiers surrendered to opposition forces yesterday.
Asked whether the United States would prefer to capture or kill bin Laden, President Bush told reporters in the Oval Office: "I don't care. Dead or alive, either way. I mean, it doesn't matter to me.
"I don't know whether we're going to get him tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now," Bush added. "But we're going to get him."
After more than a week of apparent impasse, events moved swiftly here yesterday, including sporadic ground fighting, heavy American bombing and attempts to negotiate a surrender. At midday journalists, who had been confined to a rear position Thursday, were allowed to go forward in a caravan of pickup trucks lurching over the dirt track up the mountain to catch closer glimpses of the fighting where U.S. bombs now fell in a tight pattern along a ridge.
Bombs were still falling on the contested ridgeline at twilight, after the journalists were ordered out of the area by the local Afghan fighters. Last night, two helicopters touched down at the small airport in Jalalabad, airport security guards said, and unloaded a large quantity of small arms and four men, who piled into waiting vehicles and drove toward the mountains at the orders of Ali.
Although Afghan fighters tried to claim the near-victory for themselves, there were a number of battlefield details indicating that it was a small group of highly trained, professional Western special operations troops - not the local Afghans - who were actually doing the fighting.
First, there was no apparent physical contact between the rear position and the forward line as would have been evident if the Afghan force were heavily involved in the fighting: No replacements were moving up, no ammunition bearers resupplying gunners, no wounded coming back. This suggested that the forward fighting was being carried out by an unusually self-contained unit.
More tellingly, the sporadic small arms fire heard between the larger bursts of American bombs and Afghan tank fire was distinctive. Afghan fighters tend to be enthusiastic, holding their assault rifles up and firing off a full banana-shaped clip at a time in a high-pitched barrage.