TORA BORA, Afghanistan – Relentless U.S. airstrikes on the hills and caves of Tora Bora resumed just after dawn Monday, as bombers continued trying to soften Al Qaeda defenses for a ground assault by Afghan tribesmen in the hunt for terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden.
In the south, rival tribal leaders worked out their differences on Sunday over the administration of Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold, with the former governor returning to his old office. The agreement reduces fears of factional fighting now that the Taliban are gone.
The bombing around Tora Bora beneath the spectacular, snow-covered White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan is aimed at rooting out bin Laden's Al Qaeda fighters believed holed up around cave hideouts near the Pakistan border.
A commander of the anti-Taliban forces in Tora Bora said he was certain bin Laden himself was among them, and Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that intelligence reports indicate bin Laden is in the area. Others speculate the elusive terror suspect may be hiding north of Kandahar.
"They were eager to send young men on suicide missions, but they appear to be holding up in caves," Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press.
B-52 bombers made repeated passes over the Tora Bora area throughout the day, and huge plumes of smoke rose from the barren hills and ridges. Hundreds of anti-Taliban fighters watched from several miles away as dust filled mountain valleys.
Their commander, Mohammed Zaman, said bombs alone will not dislodge the Al Qaeda fighters. He said the ground assault will be difficult, as the Arabs have had years to build up their defenses and restock their caves with weapons and food. He said bin Laden "has not escaped, and we will do everything possible to make sure he doesn't."
Pakistan Moves to Seal Off Escape Routes Along Border
Just across the border, the Pakistani army won permission from tribal elders — for the first time ever — to move several thousand troops to the semi-autonomous border region to cut off possible escape routes, said Malik Inyat Khan, chief of the Kuki Khel tribe. He said they planned to take their positions on Monday.
Cheney said a videotape of bin Laden obtained by U.S. officials in Afghanistan makes clear the Al Qaeda leader was behind the terrorist attacks. The Washington Post, quoting unidentified senior government officials, said the tape shows bin Laden praising Allah for the attacks, which he said were more successful than anticipated.
"He does in fact display significant knowledge of what happened and there's no doubt about his responsibility for the attack on Sept. 11," Cheney said.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press also reported strong U.S. air attacks Saturday and Sunday against convoys in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province, killing 24 people. The report could not be independently verified. The area includes Al Qaeda hideouts and could be among the destinations of Taliban leaders fleeing Kandahar.
U.S Marines set up roadblocks around Kandahar, searching for wanted leaders, but U.S. officials reported no encounters with hostile groups.
Hamid Karzai, who takes power as Afghanistan's interim leader on Dec. 22, told Fox News on Sunday that he had "no idea" where bin Laden was located but said his men were searching.
"He is a criminal," Karzai said of bin Laden. "He has killed thousands of our people. He has ruined our lives. He has done horrible things. If we catch hium he will be given to international justice."
The whereabouts of the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, are also unknown since the Taliban abandoned Kandahar on Friday.
The Taliban on Sunday lost the last province of Afghanistan where they held control, when two Taliban officials handed over Zabul province, neighboring Kandahar, to tribal leaders, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Kandahar Deal Worked Out
Karzai — whose interim government is to replace Taliban rule throughout the country — entered Kandahar and met with the feuding factions at the bombed-out former residence of Mullah Omar to work out a power-sharing deal.
Former Kandahar governor Gul Agha, who felt shut out of the Taliban surrender deal, said he would return to the post he held until the Taliban kicked him out in 1994. A Karzai-appointed leader, Mullah Naqibullah, would be his assistant, he said. A Karzai spokesman confirmed the agreement.
With the situation resolved in Kandahar, Karzai planned to go to Kabul, the Afghan capital, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's former king hopes to return to his homeland from his exile in Italy on March 21, his grandson said Sunday. The former monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, 87, is to play the symbolic role of convening a traditional grand council of Afghan tribes six months from now. That council will set up a two-year transitional government and draw up a constitution. Zaher Shah has lived in Italy since his 1973 ouster.
In other developments:
— John Walker, an American who fought with the Taliban, was recovering from dehydration and a gunshot wound in the leg at a Marine base in southern Afghanistan but is in good condition, officials said. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Walker has been providing useful information and no final decision has been made on what to do with him.
— At least seven fighters were killed in Lashkargah, west of Kandahar, where two tribes fought for control after the Taliban's flight, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. Its report could not be independently verified.
— A U.N. official said the world body was sending experts to Afghanistan to help the new interim administration set up a government, write a constitution and prepare for elections.
— In the northern province of Takhar, a Northern Alliance helicopter crashed, killing all 18 people aboard, including two ethnic Pashtun commanders, AIP reported. There was no word on the cause of the crash.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.