Surging tribal fighters in eastern Afghanistan responded to pleas from retreating al-Qaeda troops by offering them one last chance to surrender Tuesday.
The de facto defence chief for the tribal troops gave them until 10:30 p.m. (EST) to lay down their arms. But a spokesman for the U.S. antiterror coalition implied that news of the offer was contrived for media delivery and was not necessarily entirely accurate.
"I am firmly convinced that these announcements are timed at 25 minutes past three every day," Kenton Keith told the daily 3:30 press briefing in Islamabad, Pakistan. "Just before we walk in here, there is always some major announcement, some major claims."
Eastern tribal leader Mohammed Zaman said that al-Qaeda fighters had pleaded with their attackers, saying: "please don't fight us, we want to surrender."
Mr. Zaman was skeptical that the men would disarm and surrender peacefully, but he said that any who did would be handed over to the United Nations.
The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden remain unknown, amid unconfirmed reports that he is travelling incognito on horseback through the rugged White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
"I don't know whether he is dead or alive," Mr. Zaman said. "Tomorrow we may know."
Although the rout of the Taliban military might has gone more quickly than the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush dared hope publicly, senior White House officials have cautioned that the war is not near over.
Speaking at a southern U.S. military college, Mr. Bush issued a blunt warning Tuesday to "rogue states," saying that that could face undeclared attack as part of broadened U.S. war if they are caught aiding terrorists.
"Above all, we are acting to end the state sponsorship of terror," Mr. Bush said in a speech at the Citadel. "Every nation now knows that we cannot accept and we will not accept states that harbour, finance, train or equip the agents of terror."
"Those nations that violate this principle will be regarded as hostile regimes. They have been warned. They are being watched, and they will be held to account."
The United States will "meet this threat with every method at our disposal," Mr. Bush added. "It is not enough that the consequences be costly, they must be devastating."
Launched to punish the Taliban for harbouring Mr. bin Laden — named by the White House the prime suspect in the September terrorist attacks on the United States — the war has splintered and disrupted al-Qaeda, but it has not led to the capture of either Mr. bin Laden or Taliban supreme commander Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Mr. Keith, the coalition spokesman, said that Mr. bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist suspect, is on the run and short of options. "His ability to communicate is very limited and he is, my best guess is, he is just trying to survive."
"[But]the war in Afghanistan is not won," as deputy U.S. defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz warned recently. "It is a classic military mistake to leave a partially defeated enemy on the battlefield."
Tribal fighters pushed al-Qaeda militants out of some cave hideouts near Tora Bora after days of intense U.S. bombing. The air strikes included the largest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal — the 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutter" — and left desolation in their wake.
Correspondents at the scene describe trees reduced to ash, a landscape littered with remnants of cluster bombs and bits of shrapnel, the flattening of a hill overlooking the battlefield. An overrun sniper nest was found to contain the remains of three al-Qaeda men, their bodies shredded by heavy machine-gun fire.
"We were successful, we captured a lot of caves," senior commander Hazrat Ali said. "The largest ones were full of documents and personal belongings."
A suspected al-Qaeda firing range was abandoned, leaving targets from the National Rifle Association, marked with Arabic names and shooting scores, scattered about. And CNN broadcast images they said were of an abandoned al-Qaeda cave base in the east of Afghanistan. The footage showed an ammunition dump and bodybuilding equipment.
Routed from their caves, some of the al-Qaeda men tried to make it into Pakistan, only a short pass away, but were stopped in their tracks by a fierce mortar and artillery attack. Pakistani officials said variously that between 4,000 and 9,000 troops had been deployed to the border to prevent al-Qaeda fighters, and particularly Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Omar, from crossing the largely unregulated frontier.
"We will arrest [them]irrespective of their nationality," a government official in the Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan said.
Saying that the al-Qaeda fighters are now confined to a single base near the town of Spin Ghar, south of Tora Bora, an anti-Taliban commander named Mohammed Amin told Reuters. "We have sent reinforcements to the area."
A Lithuanian journalist said that pickup trucks carrying what appeared to be Western special forces troops were seen driving towards the front. Afghan troops also reported dozens of heavily armed U.S. soldiers heading towards the line late Monday. Small arms fire was heard and the men were back at their base in the nearby village of Pacir by dawn. The details of their mission are not known.
U.S. troops are also active in the south of Afghanistan, stopping and interrogating roaming Afghans. Marines based out of the so-called "Camp Rhino" are seizing, photographing and destroying weapons.
"If they're Taliban and they lay down their weapons immediately, they will be allowed to go their merry way," Captain Stuart Upton said. "If they're al-Qaeda, they will be apprehended unless they show any kind of hostile intent, in which case they will be killed."
The southern region around Afghanistan's No. 2 city of Kandahar remains tense, with reports of heavily armed local powerbrokers vying for control of the former Taliban stronghold and a last bastion of Taliban fighters holed up in a local hospital.
A commander loyal to the city's new governor said that Hafiz Majid, formerly a senior ally to Mr. Omar, was holding civilians hostages in the hospital. He warned bluntly that "even if he surrenders, he won't be forgiven. Somebody will kill him."
Kandahar is also full of Pashtun warriors demanding a greater share of power. "There are lots of tribesmen standing by with weapons," a witness said. "They want a share in the new government."
Interim prime minister Hamid Karzai postponed a trip to Kabul, where he was to meet with UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in order to try to defuse the situation in Kandahar. With reports from Reuters and AP