TORA BORA, Afghanistan (AP) A U.S. B-52 aircraft bombed Osama bin Laden”s mountain refuge today about one hour after a deadline had passed for the surrender of cornered al-Qaida forces.
After the air raid, Mohammed Lal, a senior commander with the U.S-supported eastern alliance, told The Associated Press that the surrender had only been been delayed and was still expected to take place.
“They are running late. But they have agreed to come down the mountain in groups of between 20 and 40 men,” Lal said. “We are clearing the area to make a safe place for their surrender.”
He said the al-Qaida fighters would lay down their weapons and walk a short distance to an alliance position where they would be searched. Trucks would then take them to the alliance”s command post at Agom village, about three miles to the southeast, where they would be detained.
Journalists were kept away from the mountainside canyon where al-Qaida forces were holed up.
It was unclear whether the bombs directly hit the canyon. However, gunfire could be heard coming from the area. Lal said he did not know why the bombing had taken place or who had done the shooting.
The eastern alliance, which overran al-Qaida”s positions yesterday, gave their mainly Arab opponents until 8 a.m. today (10:30 p.m. EST yesterday) to disarm and walk out of the Tora Bora area, saying they would otherwise face a massive attack.
About 30 minutes after the surrender deadline had come and gone, the alliance”s defense chief Mohammed Zaman said: “No Arabs have come out, yet.”
Zaman, who wants to hand the al-Qaida fighters over to the United Nations for prosecution, smiled and cocked his head when asked if U.S. military personnel were operating in the area.
U.S. warplanes also carried out bombing raids before dawn in the area today. And, as the surrender deadline passed, a B-52 bomber circled menacingly over Tora Bora, leaving a spiraling white vapor trail in the blue sky.
It dropped its payload about an hour later.
There was no immediate details on possible casualties from the air raid.
It was also unclear whether bin Laden was among the foreign fighters who were stranded in the canyon yesterday after a fierce tribal assault and devastating U.S. airstrikes, which included 15,000-pound “daisy cutters” bombs, flattened hillsides and scattered debris over the barren, wind-swept hills.
Yesterday afternoon some of the foreign al-Qaida supporters had contacted tribal commanders by radio and pleaded for the chance to give up.
Zaman agreed to a pause in the fighting after a radio conversation with al-Qaida fighters in the Pashtun language, monitored in part by an interpreter working for The Associated Press.
Afterward, his representatives met some al-Qaida commanders whom he said begged the alliance: “Please don”t fight us, we want to surrender.” Still, Zaman said he was skeptical all fighters would give up peacefully.
Pentagon officials said the war against terrorism was far from over and that some al-Qaida members might be hiding in the underground network of caves and tunnels. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that there might be holdouts willing to fight, saying, “a wounded animal can be dangerous.”