TORA BORA, Afghanistan American jets made repeated runs over the forested mountains of eastern Afghanistan on Friday, bombing hide-outs of Osama bin Laden loyalists and filling the valleys with smoke and dust.
A tall man spotted on horseback near the Tora Bora complex of caves and tunnels, and radio traffic inquiring in Arabic about "the sheik" had commanders ever more convinced that bin Laden himself was in the area.
Hundreds of anti-Taliban forces have been attacking the caves this week, trying to dislodge bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters, who fled to the area after the rout of the Taliban in most of Afghanistan. They are also mindful of a $25 million reward for bin Laden, the main suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, said American forces were working with local anti-Taliban militias and the Pakistani government to prevent senior al-Qaida members from escaping across the border. He noted U.S. special forces were in the area.
"We are in coordination with Pakistan as well as with opposition forces to do the best we can in this terribly rugged terrain to prevent the escape of those leaders," Franks told reporters in Tampa, Fla.
Local commanders said Arab fighters had abandoned their main caves as the bombardment and ground attacks intensified, and had moved with their entire families into smaller caves higher in the mountains. Between airstrikes, fighters reported seeing the children of Arab guerrillas playing outside caves.
The al-Qaida fighters rained mortar shells, rockets and bullets from their mountaintop positions, firing at pickup trucks packed with tribal fighters heading to and from the front lines. Tribal fighters responded with tank fire and mortar bombardments.
One of the commanders, Zein Huddin, said Friday night that his forces had intercepted Arabic-language radio traffic between the fighters in the mountains and allies in Kandahar before the Taliban abandoned the southern city.
"We have intercepted radio messages from Kandahar to the al-Qaida forces here, and they ask, 'How is the sheik?' The reply is, 'The sheik is fine,"' Huddin said. He was convinced "the sheik" was none other than bin Laden.
Another senior commander, Haji Kalan Mir, said his men reported seeing a man who resembled bin Laden on Friday, riding on horseback at the front line with four deputies.
"He went riding back to (the village of) Malaewa after visiting some of his troops," Mir said.
A third commander, Haji Musa, said he didn't know about bin Laden, "but his son is still in the caves."
None of the reports could be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials say they are getting so many bin Laden sightings they don't know which are valid.
"I see, literally, dozens and dozens and dozens of pieces of intelligence every day, and ... they don't agree," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday when asked whether bin Laden was near Tora Bora. "One can't know with precision until the chase around the yard is over."
Nonetheless, the American military has focused intense bombing in the remote mountains near the Pakistani border. One tribal fighter said Friday that he was assigned to protect 20 U.S. Navy personnel coordinating airstrikes from the ground and that they were living in a schoolhouse at a nearby village.
A senior Pentagon official, Gen. Peter Pace, said special operations troops have started working with the tribal fighters in the area, relaying information to warplanes that can be used to determine bombing targets.
Commanders said there was no hand-to-hand fighting Friday, as there had been a day earlier when the tribal fighters seized two caves and then pulled back to allow U.S. warplanes to soften al-Qaida positions before attacking again.
"Today we didn't do much, we didn't have an attack plan," said Hazrat Ali, one of three commanders attacking the mountains. He planned a major push on Saturday.
Ali said three of his men had been killed since Tuesday, when the assault began.
The Qatar-based television network Al-Jazeera reported Friday that the Arabs had asked for a five-day break in the fighting to leave the area. It gave no details, and both the United States and Afghanistan's new administration have said foreign fighters in Afghanistan must be brought to justice.
That appeared to leave the Arabs with little option but to fight. The only trails out across the border with Pakistan were covered in deep snow.
During Friday morning prayers, a Muslim cleric from the Arabs' side called out over a loudspeaker to the tribal fighters across the front line. He pleaded with his "Muslim brothers" to cease their attack, asking them instead to send in the Americans.
The village of Tora Bora, which means "black dust," lent its name in the 1980s to one of the most well-known anti-Soviet guerrilla bases, which was carved into the side of Ghree Kil mountain with U.S. funding.