Witnesses reported numerous U.S. bombing runs over the Tora Bora region south of Jalalabad. Al-Qaida troops reportedly responded by firing mortars at hundreds of tribal forces arrayed below the mountains.
Tribal leaders told reporters they are growing more convinced that Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaida and suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, is in the area.
“We have intercepted radio messages from Kandahar to the al-Qaida forces here, and they ask, ‘How is the sheik?’ The reply is, ‘The sheik is fine,'” Zein Huddin, one of the commanders, told the Associated Press. He said he is convinced “the sheik” is bin Laden.
Another tribal leader said his troops had seen someone resembling bin Laden riding on horseback near the al-Qaida front line.
As U.S. jets and anti-Taliban ground forces intensified their assaults on the cave complex, most al-Qaida troops reportedly left the larger base and moved higher into the mountains.
By late Friday, the Northern Alliance said they had capture the major caves in the region and that Osama bin Laden was not there.
“Osama was not in Tora Bora during the past days of fighting and if he had been, he has probably slipped into Pakistan,” Northern Alliance spokesman Mohammad Habeel told Reuters.
The U.S. said it would continue the hunt for bin Laden and his associates. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, said his forces were working to make sure that any al-Qaida fighters that had been in Tora Bora would not escape into neighboring Pakistan.
“We are in coordination with Pakistan as well as with opposition forces to do the best we can in this terribly rugged terrain to prevent the escape of those leaders,” Franks told reporters in Tampa, Fla.
Tora Bora, which means “black dust,” is the name of one of the most influential anti-Soviet guerilla bases. It was carved into the side of Ghree Kil mountain in the 1980s with U.S. backing.