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 did not stop their attacks during the negotiations, strafing a desolate canyon in the White Mountains where a group of Arabs and other non-Afghans fighting for al-Qaida were pinned down. Afghan tribal chiefs gave the fighters an ultimatum to lay down their arms by midday Thursday.
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.''
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.
He said, however, it is possible that some al-Qaida fighters had fled the country.
''It is certainly conceivable that groups of two, three, 15, 20 could, walking out of there, in fact, get out,'' Pace said. ''So we just don't know what we don't know.''
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 nearby border to Pakistan, he said. Thousands of Pakistani troops have deployed on the frontier to cut off escape 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 said he was ''not aware'' of any contact between them and al-Qaida.
In other developments:
n An Air Force B-1B bomber flying a long-range combat mission to Afghanistan crashed in the Indian Ocean on Wednesday, and all four crew members were rescued, Pentagon officials said.
n FBI agents questioned John Walker, an American who joined Taliban fighters, at a Marine base in southern Afghanistan. Walker said in earlier questioning that a new al-Qaida terror attack was possible by the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, but the White House cast doubt on the report, saying the 20-year-old would not have knowledge of such plans.
n 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.
n 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.
Ghafar said the surrender negotiations were ''just a beginning'' and might not bring a stop to the battle at Tora Bora. He said his men had pulled back from mountain positions they took in fighting Tuesday because of intense cold, and some al-Qaida followers may have taken advantage of that to move back in. Other al-Qaida fighters could still be lurking in the area.
''No one knows how many fighters are up there, but I don't think there are very many. This area is very large. The forest is very dense, and it is very difficult to search,'' he said.
By late afternoon, heavy machine-gun fire echoed down the Milawa valley, where the al-Qaida fighters were believed to be hiding in cedar and pine forests that were described as so dense that sunlight couldn't reach the ground. Huge plumes of smoke and dust rose from behind the mountains.
At sunset, an emissary sent by alliance defense chief Mohammed Zaman met with an Arab religious leader to discuss another attempt to organize a surrender for Thursday morning, a senior Zaman aide said on condition he not be named. Ghafar said al-Qaida had until midmorning to comply, or face an assault.
But there was discontent within the eastern alliance over Zaman's negotiations.
''The fighting will continue, I don't know anything about surrender talks,'' said militia leader Haji Zahir, son of Nangarhar provincial governor Abdul Qadir. One of his aides said his men were preparing to attack Thursday.
''We don't accept this talking,'' the aide, Atiaulluh Racham, said. ''They (al-Qaida) want the time to save themselves from this drama.''
Zaman's men blamed the United States for ruining the surrender deal by striking al-Qaida positions during the cease-fire overnight Tuesday.
''They were surrounded and happy to surrender,'' Amin Jan, a top Zaman lieutenant said. ''The United States only wants to kill them, and I am now responsible for fighting to kill them.''
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported that Nangarhar province's most important Islamic cleric, Mullah Fazil Hadi Shenwari, said the alliance should allow the Arabs to surrender and not hand them over to the United States or ''other infidels.''
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