Hundreds of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters faced an ultimatum to surrender their mountain hideouts today, as U.S. officials received their clearest indication to date that their leader was still in the area.
Al Qaeda forces have been told to surrender by 8 a.m. Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET today) after losing their positions in the mountains around the Tora Bora complex and indicating they were ready to discuss surrender terms, said Haji Mohammed Zaman, one of the three commanders leading the assault.
The offers followed the drop of a 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb on suspected al Qaeda positions on Sunday.
Sources tell ABCNEWS it had a massive impact in terms of its outright destruction, and also set off a series of panicked radio and satellite-phone calls immediately after, and creating a flood of new hard evidence on the whereabouts of bin Laden.
The communications told intelligence sources that bin Laden was near the blast and is now on the run — and that many other al Qaeda leaders were killed.
"They felt they had a good reason to use it in that location," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of the 15,000-pound bomb on Sunday.
A Complicated Surrender
Today Rumsfeld warned that even if the remaining al Qaeda fighters in the mountains surrender, the conflict is far from over.
"There's no question but that some of the terrorists are on the run, and there also are pockets of terrorists and Taliban that are being attacked as we speak," Rumsfeld said. "But we all know that a wounded animal can be dangerous, and so, too, the Taliban and al Qaeda can hide in the mountains, they can hide in caves and, indeed, they can hide in cities."
The cease-fire was ordered after Zaman held a radio conversation with al Qaeda leaders followed by a meeting between commanders from the two sides. An interpreter working for The Associated Press listened in on some of the radio negotiations between Zaman and the al Qaeda commanders.
The al Qaeda fighters "called me, they said, 'Please don't fight us, we want to surrender,' " Zaman said, adding that the surrender would occur in small groups, not all at once.
It was not clear, though, how many of the al Qaeda soldiers might actually be involved in any surrender, if it occurred, or what would happen to the mostly non-Afghan fighters.
"We'll give them to the United Nations. I asked them whether there were any women and children. They said they were only young men," Zaman said. "Tonight we will make a plan to get them out."
The news was greeted with skepticism by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, and at the Pentagon, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said even the term "cease-fire" was a misnomer.
"I don't think I would characterize it as a cease-fire," Myers said. "There are some valid military reasons to stop fighting for a while before you resume and that is probably what you're seeing."
Rumsfeld said the American position on al Qaeda was unchanged — if they want to surrender, they are welcome to, but there will be no deals.
"Our interest remains exactly the same: It is to capture or kill all the al Qaeda and prevent them from escaping into other countries or other locations in Afghanistan where they can continue their terrorist activities," Rumsfeld said.
Calls by some al Qaeda members for negotiations could be just a stalling tactic, to give the mostly Arab, Pakistani and Chechen mercenaries who fought for bin Laden's terror network a chance to escape, Pentagon officials said.
Talk of Surrender Downplayed
At the daily briefing in Islamabad, Pakistan, coalition spokesman Kenton Keith said that there was still fighting in the Tora Bora region, and added that claims al Qaeda forces were in disarray and seeking to surrender was an old story.
"I am firmly convinced that these announcements are timed at 25 minutes past three every day," Keith said during the briefing, which occurs daily at 3:30 p.m. Islamabad time. "Just before we walk in here, there is always some major announcement, some major claim."
But he said that anti-Taliban forces were making advances, confirming reports that three days of heavy bombardment by U.S. warplanes and a two-day ground assault by anti-Taliban troops was taking its toll on al Qaeda forces.
"Obviously the situation is still fluid. Fighting continues, advances are being made," he said.
Some of the tribal commanders in the battlefield presented a more optimistic picture of the situation.
"They are running away. We are trying to block them from the other side. We will continue to fight them, to kill them and to capture them," Hazrat Ali told The Associated Press.
The news agency said the mostly non-Afghan fighters encountered heavy shelling as they attempted to flee the Tora Bora mountains for Pakistan.
Even if al Qaeda soliders fleeing the cave complex were able to evade the shelling and air bombardment by the tribal fighters and U.S. warplanes, they would face a daunting task: a high, often snow-covered mountain pass leading into Pakistan — where thousands of Pakistani soldiers have fanned out in anticipation of just such a retreat.
The United States has cast its net into Pakistan as well as into Somalia and elsewhere in case bin Laden tries to find refuge outside Afghanistan. See Story.
'The Military and Moral Necessity of Our Time'
President Bush made a speech today at the Citadel, South Carolina's state military college, calling for improvements in intelligence-gathering and military readiness to combat terror.
He reminded the 2,000 cadets and campus officials that he had warned of this threat more than two years ago, when he visited in September 1999.
"I said here at the Citadel ... America was entering a period of consequences that would be defined by the threat of terrorism, and that we faced the challenge of military transformation," Bush said.
"That threat has now revealed itself, and that challenge is now the military and moral necessity of our time," Bush said.
Earlier, Bush held a ceremony at the White House to mark the passing of three-months since the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, leveled a section of the Pentagon and led to the crash of a plane in Pennsylvania.
"Every one of the innocents who died on September the 11th was the most important person on earth to somebody," he said. "Every death extinguished a world."
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld led a memorial service, saying, "We will remember … until freedom triumphs over fear, over repression and long beyond."
In New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki led a prayer service at the rubble of the World Trade Center for the 3,057 people listed as dead or missing.
The White House has accused bin Laden of masterminding the attacks, which involved the hijacking of four commercial airliners and flying them into the targets.
Meanwhile, the White House is determining whether to release for public broadcast a 40-minute videotape found last month in Afghanistan that offers another connection between bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The tape shows the Saudi dissident saying the World Trade Center attack was more successful than he expected, ABCNEWS has learned.
U.N. Special Envoy in Kabul
In other developments:
U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Kabul today to begin talks with rival leaders to try to smooth the way for the interim government, which is due to be sworn in on Dec. 22.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed today that Britain had volunteered to command a multinational peacekeeping force in the Afghan capital. "I am pleased that the United Kingdom is willing to step forward and volunteer for a leadership role," Powell told reporters after talks with French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in Paris. Powell then traveled to London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on a multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. Powell and Blair attended a commemorative event for the attacks on the United States, followed by a brief news conference.
In the Roman Catholic Church's annual World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II affirmed the right of a nation to defend itself from terrorism — but warned against holding a single country accountable. John Paul said terrorists do not defend the poor and the oppressed, and said the social order could be restored only through forgiveness.
Former President Clinton said winning that war in Afghanistan will not be enough. "We will win the war on terrorism but we have got to change," Clinton said at a dinner in Glasgow, Scotland, honoring the Jewish National Fund. "We have to build a world with more partners and fewer terrorists. We have to do something about global poverty by helping people help themselves. We must make the world home to all the children."
The toll of dead and missing at the World Trade Center stands at 3,057. According to city officials, 588 of those are still listed as missing while 486 death certificates have been issued based on identifications. Another 1,983 death certificates have been issued without a body, based on requests from victims' families.
ABCNEWS' Bob Woodruff in Kabul, Afghanistan, John McWethy and Barbara Starr in Washington, and David Wright with pool reporters in southern Afghanistan contributed to this report.