Anti-Taliban forces had given the al-Qaida fighters until noon Thursday local time to surrender, but the guerrillas, members of Osama bin Laden’s suspected terror network, did not comply.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said an al-Qaida surrender would be the best way to end the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
“The first choice clearly is surrender. It ends faster, it’s less expensive,” Rumsfeld said, adding that any surrender must be unconditional.
It was the second time the al-Qaida fighters, holed up in the White Mountains, had ignored a surrender deal. The first ultimatum had demanded they emerge from their cave hideouts by 8 a.m. Afghan time Wednesday.
Eastern alliance troops closing in on the al-Qaida fighters were aided by heavy U.S. bombing. AC-130 gunships and B-52 bombers pummeled a canyon where the mostly foreign Arab and Muslim al-Qaida fighters have been trapped for three days.
Reporters on the ground said U.S. war planes dropped at least one “daisy cutter,” a 15,000 pound bomb capable of obliterating everything within a 600-yard radius.
It is still unclear if bin Laden is with his troops in the eastern Afghan mountains. The Christian Science Monitor yesterday reported that bin Laden could be in Pakistan, citing as a source a senior Saudi al-Qaida operative. Pakistani and British officials dismissed that report.
Rumsfeld said there are credible reports that bin Laden is in Afghanistan, and there are some other credible reports that he is outside of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon thinks bin Laden is still in the country, but “how can we be confident until we have him?” Rumsfeld said.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there has been a “more than modest increase” in American ground troops between Kabul and the Pakistani border.
Meanwhile, Hamid Karzai, the newly appointed Afghan leader of the post-Taliban interim government, traveled from the southern city of Kandahar to Kabul to meet with top officials in the country’s capital. Karzai, a Pashtun tribesman who oversaw the Taliban surrender of Kandahar, is expected to officially take up his post Dec. 22.
Karzai said he thinks Mullah Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Taliban supreme leader, should be tried for the crimes he has committed on his people.
“He’s a criminal,” Karzai told BBC. “Look at the years of oppression, lack of economic activity, the killing, the murder, the destruction of property, destruction of values.”
Like the search for bin Laden, finding Omar, last seen in Kandahar, is a top priority of the United States. Rumsfeld said the Bush administration was considering placing a reward of some $10 million on Omar’s head, the first time such a reward has been mentioned for Taliban leaders.
In a hospital in Kandahar, the last major city surrendered by the Taliban, 13 injured Arab al-Qaida fighters strapped explosives to their waists and threatened to blow themselves up if anyone other than medical staff entered the room.
In the eastern city of Jalalabad, north of the Tora Bora region, anti-Taliban forces yesterday released 200 Pakistani prisoners who had fought alongside the Taliban. More releases could be made soon to mark the feast following the Ramadan fasting month, said Azrat Ali, a senior anti-Taliban alliance commander.