TORA BORA, Afghanistan – About 50 Al Qaeda fighters surrendered to eastern alliance forces on Friday, and a top Afghan commander claimed to have located and encircled a two square-mile area in which he believed Usama bin Laden could be hiding, according to reports.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed the surrender of the Al Qaeda members, speaking to reporters on a plane en route to a tour of countries near Afghanistan.
The U.S. military estimates that 300 to 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters are trapped in the Tora Bora area in eastern Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war, said in Tampa, Florida. Franks did not know whether the Al Qaeda fighters captured by the alliance included any leaders of the terrorist group.
"It'll take until tomorrow to get them rounded up, to see who they are," Franks said.
Earlier on Friday, eastern alliance defense chief Hazrat Ali said he thought that bin Laden might be inside the Tora Bora hideout, one of several in the area where his men captured the Al Qaeda fighters amid heavy U.S. bombing.
About 180 bombs were dropped on the caves and tunnels around Tora Bora on Friday, according to Rumsfeld.
President Bush pledged anew that bin Laden will be taken "dead or alive," no matter how long it takes, amid the indications that he was bottled up in the rugged Afghan canyon.
The president said he doesn't care how the suspect is brought to justice.
"I don't care, dead or alive — either way," Bush said. "It doesn't matter to me."
Meanwhile, two Americans were slightly wounded Friday during fighting between U.S. special forces and Al Qaeda guerrillas near the Tora Bora complex, according to a witness.
Twelve members of the U.S. special forces and dozens of tribal eastern alliance fighters were trying to take out an Al Qaeda defensive position when they came under machine-gun fire, said an Afghan fighter who uses the single name of Khawri.
He said in an exchange of fire, two of the Americans were grazed by bullets — one in the shoulder, the other in the knee. Khawri said the wounded men were well enough to walk down the mountain. They were taken back to a schoolhouse in a nearby town where they have been staying for medical treatment, he said.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war, said he had no information on Americans being wounded but could not rule it out.
"I do not believe we have had any American men or women in uniform injured today," he said. "That's my current belief."
Speaking to reporters in Tampa, Fla., the general said it was not clear where bin Laden was hiding. "You don't know what you don't know."
Franks said Afghan fighters had taken Al Qaeda prisoners Friday. He said he would not know until at least Saturday how many prisoners were taken or whether any were senior leaders of bin Laden's terrorist network. He said they would be screened by U.S. forces.
In Afghanistan's south, U.S. Marines in a land convoy and helicopters took control of Kandahar airport, a one-time stronghold of Al Qaeda and the now-vanquished Taliban militia. The runway was littered with unexploded ordnance and bomb potholes.
The airport is to become a major arrival point for humanitarian aid that will be desperately needed as the bitter Afghan winter sets in.
The location of bin Laden — the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States — remains the focus of the fierce conflict near the Pakistan border.
Some U.S. officials believe he might be hiding there under seige. However, others say he is more likely holed up in another part of Afghanistan or may have even left the country.
In a damning videotape released Thursday, a gleeful bin Laden is shown describing his involvement, saying he calculated in advance the number of casualties.
A $25 million U.S. bounty for the Saudi millionaire has heightened the hunt for him. There have been several unconfirmed sightings of bin Laden in the Tora Bora area in recent days.
Ali's description of the fighting could not be independently verified as journalists have been barred from that area.
Several hours earlier on Friday, Ali quoted running radio reports from the battlefield as saying that his men had captured, entered and searched the cave. However, later he said they only located it and were trying to capture it.
"There is one cave surrounded by my forces. ... I think there is one place inside where Usama is," he said.
Ali said his forces had encircled Al Qaeda loyalists in a small hollow on the ridge. A battle for that position was ongoing, he said, and there were many Al Qaeda dead and wounded.
"They are surrounded and they cannot escape," he said.
Said Mohammed Pahalawn, a deputy of Mohammed Zaman, who commands another alliance faction, said the depression contained about 100 to 120 Al Qaeda fighters who were under attack from the ground and air.
"We have seen the place," Pahalawn said of bin Laden's cave. "The U.S. is bombing the area, but the opening of the cave is safe from bombing. The bombs can't reach it."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has stressed that the United States is not sure where bin Laden is. He has said that although the Tora Bora area is a likely location, he might be elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Ali said Afghan agents reported seeing a man, identified as bin Laden, in the Tora Bora area on Monday. That report could not be independently verified.
However, the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based news agency, quoted unidentified sources in the eastern city of Jalalabad, as saying bin Laden had left Tora Bora on Nov. 25 or 26 for an unknown location.
Earlier Friday, several alliance commanders said Al Qaeda forces were falling back and abandoning their heavy weaponry after days of intense fighting and devastating bombing.
U.S. fighter jets swooped low over the battlefield and pummeled mountains that separate the Tora Bora and Milawa valleys, where bin Laden's loyalists had operated from a base of caves and tunnels. B-52s bombed from high above.
Alliance forces said four of their fighters were injured when a bomb exploded too close to their front line.
Tribal commander Haji Musa said some enemy troops were headed for a forest behind the two valleys. From there, they might try to escape along narrow trails that weave south through the towering White Mountain range and into Pakistan.
Pakistani's military has posted thousands of troops to stop Al Qaeda troops from crossing the border but says the rugged and snowy terrain makes that difficult.
At the Kandahar airport, U.S. Marines cleared debris and searched for booby traps and land mines. Burned-out and mangled aircraft, hit during air raids in previous weeks, sat on the tarmac.
Spokesman Capt. David Romley said a guard had been posted around the airport's perimeter amid reports that some pro-bin Laden gangs might be still operating in the area.
Also on Friday, Afghanistan's incoming interim prime minister Hamid Karzai and some aides made a pilgrimage to the grave of slain opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massood.
Massood was killed in a suicide attack two days before the terror strikes in the United States. He was revered in much of Afghanistan, particularly in areas that were strongholds of his northern alliance.
Karzai arrived in the Afghan capital Thursday. It was his first visit to Kabul since he was named interim premier at a U.N.-brokered conference in Germany.
Karzai, who will take office on Dec. 22, has said he hopes for an early meeting with Afghanistan's exiled King Zaher Shah, who is living in exile in Rome.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair still has not announced that Britain, as expected, will lead an international peacekeeping force. Countries expected to take part besides Britain are France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands. Troops from Bangladesh and Jordan are expected to follow. Argentina this week also offered troops, diplomats said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.