TORA BORA, Afghanistan -- Joined by U.S. special forces on their front lines in the eastern mountains, Afghan tribal commanders set a new deadline Wednesday for trapped al-Qaida fighters to surrender -- and said they must hand over their leaders as well.
American AC-130 gunships continued attacks during the negotiations, strafing a canyon in the White Mountains where a group of Arabs and other non-Afghans fighting for al-Qaida were trapped. Afghan tribal chiefs gave the fighters an ultimatum to lay down their arms todayby midday.
Ghafar, a leader in the tribal eastern alliance, said the al-Qaida fighters are believed to include some from a list of 22 "most wanted terrorists" made public by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
"They have to hand them over, but they didn't (want to)," said Ghafar, who goes by one name. He said a plan for the fighters to surrender Wednesday morning collapsed in part over the refusal of leaders to give up. "They must turn over at least some of these people."
Where is bin Laden?
He said it was not certain if bin Laden was among them. U.S. and Afghan officials have said he may be in the Tora Bora region of caves and tunnels, where the eastern alliance -- backed by U.S. bombing -- has been besieging al-Qaida.
Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington that the Pentagon does not know if the al-Qaida leadership was in the Tora Bora area. He said it would be "great" if they were.
An undetermined number of foreign fighters is in the heavily forested canyon, where they fled after being routed from their mountaintop positions and caves the day before. The alliance had given them until 8 a.m. Wednesday to give themselves up, but the deadline passed with no surrender.
Ghafar said that during negotiations it became clear that only low-level al-Qaida fighters planned to turn in their weapons and that senior officers would not.
The alliance suspected that top al-Qaida leaders would have used any surrender to flee in small groups to other areas of Afghanistan or across the border to Pakistan, he said. Thousands of Pakistani troops have deployed on the frontier to cut off routes.
U.S. warplanes kept up their assault at Tora Bora. AC-130s struck for a second straight night Wednesday, and during the day B-52s pounded the al-Qaida positions in a roughly 10-square-mile area.
During fighting Wednesday, about 60 U.S. special forces soldiers were on the front line, wearing traditional Afghan hats and shawls, but carrying U.S. weapons and large backpacks, making them stand out from the alliance fighters.
Pace confirmed that U.S. troops were in the area but he was not aware of contact between them and al-Qaida.
In other developments:
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the quick deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and said he hoped Britain would agree to lead it.
New Afghan leader Hamid Karzai arrived at the presidential palace in Kabul, the capital, on Wednesday, officials said. Karzai, named interim leader at a U.N.-brokered conference last month, had not been in Kabul since his appointment.