TORA BORA, Dec 12: US warplanes, including B-52 bombers, pounded Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda fighters on Wednesday after they rejected a deadline to surrender or die.

After the deadline expired at 8am (8.30am PST), Afghan militiamen besieging the fighters made a second failed attempt to persuade them to quit their stronghold in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

The militias are now readying for renewed conflict with Al-Qaeda, a spokesman said. Witnesses said western special forces were also in the region.

Just 50 minutes after the deadline had passed, a B-52 bomber carried out the first of a series of raids on the White Mountain range, which takes in Tora Bora mountain and its complex of caves and tunnels.

Around midday, another B-52 appeared in the skies over the rugged mountains south of Jalalabad and staged at least two attacks on Al-Qaeda positions.

In the evening, a warplane dropped two large bombs. Soon after, a large propeller plane could be heard flying towards the mountains.

Local militia leaders said they were preparing to renew their assault on the Al-Qaeda after attempts to persuade them to give up failed.

“We are preparing for war as the talks have failed. The Al-Qaeda fighters firmly refused to surrender before the Nangarhar provincial administration,” said Amin, spokesman for local militia commander Hazrat Ali.

“The Al-Qaeda fighters said they would only surrender in the presence of United Nations representatives and diplomats from their respective countries,” Amin said.

“Because they are not laying down their arms our forces are now preparing to launch a ground attack, probably early tomorrow (Thursday) morning.”

Amin said the Al-Qaeda force numbered around 1,000 Arabs and other foreigners. They have already been battered for 10 days by air and ground assaults, including an attack by one of the most powerful conventional bombs.

US coalition spokesman in Islamabad, Kenton Keith, said there was no question of anything short of an unconditional surrender.

“The Al-Qaeda is in no position to decide its surrender conditions,” he said. “Their option is to surrender to the forces they are facing.”

A US government official said on Tuesday that intelligence services believed they had detected Osama himself and members of his inner circle among the fighters in the Tora Bora region.

The United States has hurled some of its biggest bombs at the caves in recent weeks, including the largest conventional bomb in its arsenal — a 7.5-ton “daisy cutter” — which was dropped on a cave on Sunday.

The US television network ABC News reported that in addition to causing mass destruction, the blast had sparked a series of panicked radio and satellite calls among Al-Qaeda members.

Those communications provided confirmation that Osama and his entourage remain in the region, the network said.

Since the collapse of the Taliban, the focus of the US campaign has been on capturing or killing Osama and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

KARZAI: Afghanistan’s new interim leader Hamid Karzai had been expected in Kabul on Wednesday. But though officials were seen waiting at the airport, Karzai’s arrival from Kandahar was not confirmed.

Outgoing president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who has opposed parts of the deal which brought Karzai to power, promised on Wednesday to support the interim government that will take power on Dec 22.

“I fully support Mr Karzai and I will cooperate (with the new interim authority),” Rabbani said.

Ensuring security will be among Karzai’s priorities.

Many residents of the war-shattered capital warmly welcome plans to deploy an international peacekeeping force numbering several thousand. But the Northern Alliance has balked at the idea.

The alliance favours a small force of 1,000 men purely to guard premises of the new interim government, a defence ministry spokesman said.

Another disagreement is the requirement under last week’s UN-brokered power-sharing accord that the alliance withdraw all military units from Kabul before deployment of the UN-mandated force.

Helicopters land: At least two helicopters landed late on Wednesday near the Tora Bora mountain, in what could be the start of a raid against Al-Qaeda fighters.

The helicopters landed a few hours after the fighters rejected the surrender deadline.

Several witnesses have spoken in recent days of seeing members of US or British special forces near the frontline between the local Afghan militia and the followers of Osama.

They could not be seen but could be clearly heard as they came into land and strong lights were seen in the same district.—AFP

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