Al-Qaida talks of surrender as bin Laden heard on radio

Sunday, December 16, 2001

TORA BORA, Afghanistan -- Besieged al-Qaida fighters offered again Saturday to surrender as a new report surfaced that Osama bin Laden could be in the region. Opposition commanders feared the offer was just another ploy, and U.S. bombers kept up a relentless attack from the air.

American forces heard bin Laden talking on short-range radio this past week in the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. official said, lending credence to reports the al-Qaida leader was cornered there along with his troops.

U.S. officials confirmed that the voice was bin Laden's by comparing it with several videotapes in which he spoke, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tribal commanders, meanwhile, said they feared being duped by a new surrender offer from the predominantly foreign fighters of bin Laden's terrorist bands in the Tora Bora area, the last major pocket of al-Qaida resistence in Afghanistan.

Two earlier surrender negotiations proved pointless and gave al-Qaida vital time to regroup or flee the region.

Bombing continues

From the air, however, there was no cease-fire as U.S. planes pummeled the region, particularly the area around a heavily guarded cave where tribal commanders think bin Laden may be hiding.

The bombardment continued an extremely heavy air attack over the previous two days in which 450 bombs were dropped in support of opposition fighters. The fighters, aided by U.S. and British troops, closed in Saturday on an estimated 1,000 al-Qaida fighters.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, during a stop in the Caucasus nation of Georgia, said no al-Qaida fighters had surrendered Saturday.

Pakistan said Saturday it arrested 37 Arabs -- including 31 Yemenis -- sneaking into the country from Tora Bora. Officials said the men admitted belonging to al-Qaida and said U.S. bombing had forced them to flee, dropping their weapons.

They were taken to a jail in the southwestern Pakistani city of Parachinar. Fifty suspected al-Qaida members were arrested on the Pakistani side of the border earlier in the week.

About 50 al-Qaida men -- possibly more -- already have been taken captive inside Afghanistan, lending urgency to construction of a prisoner-of-war camp at the airport in the southern city of Kandahar, the former seat of the now-vanquished Taliban militia.

Moving American prisoner

Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war, said John Walker, the American Taliban fighter who surrendered to American forces in Afghanistan, has been moved to the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea. U.S. Marines had been holding Walker at Camp Rhino, their remote desert base 70 miles from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

U.S. officials have not decided what to do with Walker -- whether to keep him in military custody or turn him over to the civilian justice system, Franks said.

A U.S. military official at the southern Afghanistan facility, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he expected up to 300 prisoners from the Tora Bora area would be sent to the Kandahar camp.

Haji Zahir, one of three militia commanders involved in the Tora Bora attack, said he was skeptical about the surrender talks, which were being conducted by two-way radio.

"I have told my forces to hold their positions, because I don't believe them," Zahir said. "The first and last condition is that they surrender."

In radio transmissions monitored by journalists, al-Qaida commanders were heard to argue about whether, not how, to surrender.

Said Mohammed Pawhalan said al-Qaida had divided into at least two groups, one Chechen and one of Arabic-speakers, with only the Arabs wanting to give up.

Pentagon officials said Friday that American forces had taken 50 al-Qaida members prisoner.

The Tora Bora region is the last major pocket of al-Qaida resistance in the country.

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