Opp sets fresh deadline for surrender

TORA BORA: Afghan fighters demanded on Wednesday that top terrorist suspects, possibly including Osama Bin Laden, turn themselves in before they allow hundreds of foreign al-Qaeda fighters trapped in a desolate mountain canyon to escape devastating US bombing and surrender.

The ultimatum was announced after an earlier surrender deal collapsed and as the boxed-in al-Qaeda men were hit by a new wave of heavy US airstrikes that sent clouds of smoke and debris billowing into the air.

Claiming they wanted to end the carnage, tribal eastern alliance leaders set a new deadline of noon (0730 GMT) on Thursday for the fighters to disarm and give up.

Those who must turn themselves in could include Bin Laden himself, if he was at Tora Bora, said Ghafar, the mayor of Jalalabad, who like some Afghans goes by one name only. It also must include other men on Washington's list of most wanted terrorist suspects who may be in the Tora Bora area.

"But we don't know where Osama is," Ghafar said, adding that the alleged terrorist chief might be hiding in thick alpine forest along the nearby border with Pakistan. Other leaders might have escaped during a failed cease-fire overnight, he said.

Some US officials and tribal leaders suspect Bin Laden might be in the Tora Bora area, in eastern Afghanistan. Others believe he is hiding in the country's south.

An undetermined number of al-Qaeda men have been holed up in a desolate mountainside canyon at Tora Bora since alliance forces overran their positions on Tuesday and pleaded for mercy via two-way radio. The Alliance's defense chief, Mohammed Zaman, declared a cease-fire and gave them until 8 am (0330 GMT) Wednesday to surrender unconditionally area or face a massive attack.

Heavy US bombing resumed soon after the deadline passed when the al-Qaeda group set new surrender terms. The Pakistan-based news agency, Afghan Islamic Press, said the mainly Arabs fighters demanded that a UN representative and diplomats from their home nations be present for their surrender.

They also wanted to be handed over to the United Nations, something the alliance had reportedly promised. The agency estimated the size of the force at 1,000 men from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen, Iraq and Chechnya. The report could not be independently verified.

It appeared from a distance that bombs from several circling B-52s and other US warplanes directly hit the canyon. Others appeared to fall on al-Qaeda positions nearby in the Tora Bora and Milawa valleys, which are riddled with hundreds of caves and tunnels. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Witnesses said 60 men, who appeared to be American personnel, were seen near the front line on Wednesday. They were wearing Afghan shawls and floppy pacole caps, but were carrying what the witnesses said were US-made weapons and backpacks. An Alliance subcommander said 40 British special operations troops also were fighting in the valleys.

Ghafur confirmed the presence of foreign troops but said they were acting as observers or guides for US warplanes. "You may see American here. But only Afghans are allowed to fight," he said.

Pentagon officials warned that some al-Qaeda members might still be hiding in the underground network. Defense Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld said holdouts might continue to fight and that "a wounded animal can be dangerous." ( AP )

Hits: