TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) American bombers pounded the hills and caves of Tora Bora yesterday, trying to soften al-Qaida defenses for a ground assault by Afghan tribesmen. Pakistani forces moved to seal off escape routes on their side of the border.

In the south, rival tribal leaders worked out differences over the administration of Kandahar, the Taliban”s former stronghold, with the former governor returning to his old office. The agreement reduces fears of factional fighting now that the Taliban are gone.

The bombing around this village beneath the spectacular, snow-covered White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan is aimed at rooting out Osama bin Laden”s al-Qaida fighters believed holed up around cave hide-outs near the Pakistan border.

A commander of the anti-Taliban forces in Tora Bora said he was certain bin Laden himself was among them, and Vice President Cheney said yesterday that intelligence reports indicate bin Laden is in the area. Others speculate the elusive terror suspect may be hiding north of Kandahar.

“They were eager to send young men on suicide missions, but they appear to be holding up in caves,” Cheney said on NBC”s “Meet the Press.”

B-52 bombers made repeated passes over the Tora Bora area throughout the day, and huge plumes of smoke rose from the barren hills and ridges. Hundreds of anti-Taliban fighters watched from several miles away as dust filled mountain valleys.

Their commander, Mohammed Zaman, said bombs alone will not dislodge the al-Qaida fighters. He said the ground assault will be difficult, as the Arabs have had years to build up their defenses and restock their caves with weapons and food. He said bin Laden “has not escaped, and we will do everything possible to make sure he doesn”t.”

From the other side of the front line, a 27-year-old Tunisian, Abu Abdullah, claimed weeks U.S. bombing have had little effect, killing only two people and slightly injuring eight.

Contacted by radio from Pakistan, Abdullah said 84 Arab fighters mostly from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt were hiding in the mountains. A few had wives and children there, he said. He claimed the fighters had no links to bin Laden and scoffed at the idea that the world”s most wanted man was among them.

“I swear by Allah that Osama is not present here,” he told The Associated Press. “But now we have no alternative except to embrace death instead of dishonor.”

Just across the border, the Pakistani army won permission from tribal elders for the first time ever _to move several thousand troops to the semi-autonomous border region to cut off possible escape routes, said Malik Inyat Khan, chief of the Kuki Khel tribe. He said they planned to take their positions today.

Cheney said a videotape of bin Laden obtained by U.S. officials in Afghanistan makes clear the al-Qaida leader was behind the terrorist attacks. The Washington Post, quoting unidentified senior government officials, said the tape shows bin Laden praising Allah for the attacks, which he said were more successful than anticipated.

“He does in fact display significant knowledge of what happened and there”s no doubt about his responsibility for the attack on September 11,” Cheney said.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press also reported strong U.S. air attacks Saturday and yesterday against convoys in Afghanistan”s eastern Paktika province, killing 24 people. The report could not be independently verified. The area includes al-Qaida hide-outs and could be among the destinations of Taliban leaders fleeing Kandahar.

U.S Marines set up roadblocks around Kandahar, searching for wanted leaders, but U.S. officials reported no encounters with hostile groups.

Hamid Karzai, who takes power as Afghanistan”s interim leader on Dec. 22, told Fox News yesterday that he had “no idea” where bin Laden was located but said his men were searching.

“He is a criminal,” Karzai said of bin Laden. “He has killed thousands of our people. He has ruined our lives. He has done horrible things. If we catch hium he will be given to international justice.”

The whereabouts of the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, are also unknown since the Taliban abandoned Kandahar on Friday.

The Taliban yesterday lost the last province of Afghanistan where they held control, when two Taliban officials handed over Zabul province, neighboring Kandahar, to tribal leaders, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Karzai,whose interim government is to replace Taliban rule throughout the country _ entered Kandahar and met with the feuding factions at the bombed-out former residence of Mullah Omar to work out a power-sharing deal.

Former Kandahar governor Gul Agha, who felt shut out of the Taliban surrender deal, said he would return to the post he held until the Taliban kicked him out in 1994. A Karzai-appointed leader, Mullah Naqibullah, would be his assistant, he said. A Karzai spokesman confirmed the agreement.

With the situation resolved in Kandahar, Karzai planned to go to Kabul, the Afghan capital, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan”s former king hopes to return to his homeland from his exile in Italy on March 21, his grandson said yesterday. The former monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, 87, is to play the symbolic role of convening a traditional grand council of Afghan tribes six months from now. That council will set up a two-year transitional government and draw up a constitution.

Zaher Shah has lived in Italy since his 1973 ouster.

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