The provincial security chief on Monday claimed two Afghan elders in the region had received a message from Usama bin Laden saying he did not want to fight fellow Muslims.

"They gave a message to our elders from Usama bin Laden [which said] 'I don't want to fight the [Muslim forces], but if I find some foreign troops, I must fight them,'" said Hazrat Ali.

He said he would not vouch for the truth of the elders' claims to represent bin Laden.

Ali said he was preparing to lay siege to the mountainous Tora Bora cave hideout where hundreds of Al Qaeda members — perhaps bin Laden himself — are thought to be holed up.

Ali said he had sent a delegation of elders from Jalalabad to negotiate the surrender of non-Afghan fighters hiding in the mountains south of here.

Backed by a resolution from the Eastern Shura, or council, which has taken over the Jalalabad area, Ali said he had 1,500 men ready to enter the White Mountains to drive out the non-Afghans — primarily Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks — who have been fighting with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"That is our aim, to fight the terrorists in that area. It is the last and strongest Al Qaeda base left in our country," Ali said. "We are ready."

He said the assault could begin in the next few days.

U.S. helicopters have been landing after nightfall at Jalalabad airport, which Ali controls, for the last three nights. He said fewer than 20 U.S. troops were on the helicopters.

For weeks rumors of bin Laden's presence in the White Mountains, specifically at the former anti-Soviet guerrilla cave complex at Tora Bora, have spread throughout eastern Afghanistan.

Anti-Taliban leaders have said they believe bin Laden is at Tora Bora or another cave complex known as Mawal, 45 miles southwest of Jalalabad.

U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks said last week that U.S. forces were concentrating their attention on two parts of Afghanistan, southern Kandahar province and the mountains of southern Nangarhar, along the Pakistani border.

Former Taliban members and Northern Alliance leaders in Kabul, however, said they think bin Laden is in Kandahar, preparing a last stand with the only remaining Taliban force of consequence.

Tora Bora is a well known cave complex built in the 1980s with U.S. funding as a headquarters for guerrillas fighting against the decade of Soviet occupation. Ali, who fought the Soviets from Tora Bora, described it as an impregnable fortress.