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.