BAMOKHIL, Afghanistan - As Afghan tribal fighters battling their way through mortar and machine-gun fire pushed Osama bin Laden loyalists from a strategic mountain valley yesterday, some of the terrorist leader's most trusted fighters accused him of leaving them to be slaughtered at the Tora Bora military base in Afghanistan's White Mountains.
Afghan sources close to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network said that a split had emerged between hard-core Algerians and other Arabs, including some Egyptians, who feel they have been left for dead in the mountain bastion by their top leaders. Some of the Egyptians have fled Tora Bora with their families. Others are waiting for the chance but fear execution if they get caught trying to leave.
“Some of the al-Qaeda fighters have become extremely demoralized in the last couple of days,” said Pir Bajsham, a senior Afghan intelligence official. “Some will fight to the last bullet, but we also expect hundreds to surrender when their food and ammunition runs low. It is only a question of when.”
B-52s and other American warplanes battered al-Qaeda mortar positions on the mountaintops as the Afghan fighters - helped by U.S. special forces - seized caves in the Milawa valley in the White Mountains. A commander said forces loyal to bin Laden had been pushed back to the main complex at Tora Bora about a mile away.
The Pentagon said it targeted a cave in the Tora Bora area with its largest conventional bomb, the 15,000-pound “daisy cutter,” on Sunday on suspicion the cave might contain senior al-Qaeda leaders, possibly including bin Laden.
“The U.S. air raids have been cut back to allow my men to advance into the mouth of Tora Bora,” said Husta Gul, an Afghan officer serving one of the region's most-powerful warlords.
Afghan fighters, re-supplied by camels, have edged up to firing posts overlooking the Tora Bora valley where between 1,000 and 2,000 Arab and Chechen fighters are waging what they consider a holy war against Western aggression. The battle for Tora Bora has not been joined by British or American ground troops, however, which greatly disappoints hardcore al-Qaeda fighters who had been hoping to reach paradise by killing an infidel.
Others have been disappointed by bin Laden's distance from the battle. Several leading Egyptian families have fled the Tora Bora base, and “the men are saying that as long as Osama and his top lieutenants are hiding in caves and not doing any of the front-line fighting, they don't want to sacrifice their lives for the al-Qaeda cause,” said an Afghan who has helped spirit away several defecting families, including a dozen children.
Al-Qaeda families who have escaped the intense bombing said the airstrikes have caused massive rockslides.
“The bombs are knocking huge boulders off the side of the mountain, and several of them have rolled down on young children,” said an Afghan villager, who recently traveled into one of the mountain pockets where the families are hiding.
American military “advisers” driving in a green truck with tinted windows and dressed in local garb were spotted yesterday mapping out strategy for a broader siege of the White Mountain enclave. So far, the Western-backed Afghan fighters have made little progress flushing out al-Qaeda fighters, despite the defections.
The ruggedness and remoteness of the terrain have forced the rag-tag Afghans, many of whom fought in the same mountains against the Soviets in the 1980s, to move on foot through intersecting lines of al-Qaeda fire.
There were growing signs, however, that senior al-Qaeda leaders may have left the besieged mountain base. In Washington, U.S. officials said bin Laden is probably still somewhere in eastern Afghanistan, but that newly broadened description of his whereabouts suggests he is probably on the lam again.
Bin Laden had favored the Tora Bora mountain enclave because it permits a quick escape into Pakistan. It also offers the option of traipsing across the White Mountains, albeit through heavy snowdrifts, into several other modern terror bases to the South, in Afghanistan's Paktia province.
U.S. Marines intensified their hunt for Taliban leaders and members of the al-Qaida terror network around the southern city of Kandahar - the other region where Afghan and American officials think bin Laden may be hiding.
Marine “hunter-killer” teams in armored assault vehicles and backed by combat helicopters set up a staging ground at the foot of a jagged mountain about 12 miles outside Kandahar, from which officials said they could intercept fleeing fighters on the roads.
In Kabul, meanwhile, a State Department assessment team guarded by Marines inspected the grounds of the long-abandoned American Embassy as a first step toward resuming a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan after a 12-year absence.
A spokesman, Army Maj. Victor Harris, told journalists at the embassy that no date had been set for any reopening, and it had not even been decided whether the United States would keep the present site or look for a new one.
Philip Smucker is a freelance journalist who occasionally writes for The Blade. This report includes information from the Associated Press.