TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Although Afghan tribal warriors declared victory over Al Qaeda guerillas in Tora Bora Sunday, U.S. warplanes continued bombing targets, and senior officials warned that fighting in the region was far from over.
After nine weeks of siege, Afghan leaders announced Sunday that they'd overtaken the Al Qaeda terror network's last stronghold, the Tora Bora area in the northeastern portion of the country.
Commanders Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman came down from the rugged cliffsides to declare they controlled all the caves in the Tora Bora area, a boast impossible to verify.
"This is the last day of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," Zaman said.
Mixed messages and confusion were the order of the day. When the dust cleared Usama bin Laden couldn't be found, a mass of Al Qaeda soldiers escaped into the hills and U.S. jets continued airstrikes on targets in the vicinity. Al Qaeda fighters fled deeper into forests on the snowcapped White Mountain range, the site of an intricate cave complex believed to have been a bin Laden hiding place.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a brief visit to Afghanistan, told reporters of "a fierce battle" in the Tora Bora area. He met the new interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, at Bagram airport to discuss the course of the war and plans for Afghanistan's future.
Afghan commanders at Tora Bora said that at least 200 Al Qaeda fighters had been killed and 25 had been captured, with 2,000 others on the run. But no one knew for sure if bin Laden was dead, fleeing, holed up deep in one of the eastern region's thousands of caves — or if he'd been there at all.
After a five-hour lull in U.S. airstrikes, more chaos and violence erupted. At least two bombs fell on the area and an AC-130 gunship was hammering nighttime targets with its howitzer, although the action sounded farther away, as if the planes were going after fleeing forces.
"There are people trying to escape, and people trying to run them down," Rumsfeld said.
He said Afghan leaders told him that in addition to the dead, they had captured 11 Al Qaeda fighters and others were trying to flee the couple of miles to the border with Pakistan, which has sent helicopter gunships and thousands of troops to seal the frontier. Pakistan said Saturday it arrested 37 Arabs sneaking into the country from Tora Bora.
Rumsfeld also said he had received Afghan reports that one senior Al Qaeda leader had been captured, but he would not identify him.
He spoke in Bagram, north of Kabul, as U.S. Marines hastily finished a prisoner-of-war camp Sunday at their Kandahar airport base in southern Afghanistan to hold Al Qaeda captives.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's commander, said the eastern alliance was "making progress, but I think it's accurate to say that it's going to be a while before we have the area of Tora Bora fully under control."
"It's physically a matter of digging out the Al Qaeda from these caves and tunnels," Franks said on ABC's This Week. "It's a matter of inching our way forward up the sides of these canyons and physically going into each one of these bunkers and caves."
Neither Zaman nor Ali could answer the most pressing question of the long, bloody campaign: Where is bin Laden?
"A few days before I had information that he was here," Ali said. "But now I don't know where he is."
What was believed to be his fortified cave was the last to be taken Sunday, Ali said. Inside were six fighters, one of whom was killed. The commander promised to scour the mountains "meter by meter" to find stragglers. But with so many caves in the area, it could be a long time before anyone knows with certainty that fighters, including bin Laden, are not there.
Franks, meanwhile, tempered earlier reports that bin Laden's voice was identified last week in recent short-range radio transmissions.
"We have certainly been receiving an awful lot of transmission traffic. We're not sure" it was bin Laden, he said.
Relentless U.S. bombing in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan was first reported on Oct. 15, eight days after the U.S.-led military campaign began. Tribal fighters have been attacking Al Qaeda forces in the area since.
On Sunday, smiling eastern alliance forces chanted in English, "Al Qaeda is finished! Al Qaeda is finished!" as U.S. planes circled overhead.
The Tora Bora region was the last major pocket of Al Qaeda resistance in Afghanistan. Late last week, Franks said other holdouts included the Shindand area in western Afghanistan and the Helmand province northwest of Kandahar.
Across Afghanistan, civilians and fighters alike poured into mosques for Eid al-Fitr, Islam's most festive holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and mullahs led prayers appealing for peace.
Even near Tora Bora, eastern alliance fighters emerged briefly from the mountains, their hair matted with dust, to stack Kalashnikovs outside village mosques and celebrate the feast marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
"I prayed to God to bring peace to our people," said eastern alliance commander Haji Qadir, who attended celebrations at a mosque in Jalalabad.
Gunfire of the festive kind filled Kandahar streets as women in new clothes, and men in shiny shoes visited relatives with gifts of clothes, money and dried fruit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.