TORA BORA, Afghanistan — American bombers pounded the hills and caves of Tora Bora on Sunday, trying to soften al-Qaida defenses for a ground assault by Afghan tribesmen. Pakistani forces moved to seal off escape routes on their side of the border.
In the south, rival tribal leaders worked out differences 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 this village beneath the spectacular, snow-covered White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan is aimed at rooting out Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters believed holed up around cave hide-outs 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 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-Qaida 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."
From the other side of the front line, a 27-year-old Tunisian, Abu Abdullah, claimed weeks U.S. bombing have had little effect, killing only two people and slightly injuring eight.
Contacted by radio from Pakistan, Abdullah said 84 Arab fighters--mostly from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt--were hiding in the mountains. A few had wives and children there, he said. He claimed the fighters had no links to bin Laden and scoffed at the idea that the world's most wanted man was among them.
"I swear by Allah that Osama is not present here," he told The Associated Press. "But now we have no alternative except to embrace death instead of dishonor."
Abdullah boasted that as the American planes appear overhead, the fighters chant: "Oh Jews, remember, the armies of Muhammad are coming."
Just across the border, the Pakistani army won permission from tribal elders--for the first time ever--to move several thousand troops to the semiautonomous 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-Qaida 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 September 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-Qaida hide-outs and could be among the destinations of Taliban leaders fleeing Kandahar.
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 repeated promises that he would be handed over for "international justice" if caught.
Karzai entered Kandahar for the first time since the Taliban fled their spiritual base early Friday. He met with tribal leaders feuding for control and worked out a power-sharing deal for the embattled city.
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.
"God willing, I will run the administration of Kandahar with the advice of the local people, tribal elders and mujahedin commanders," Gul Agha said. A Karzai spokesman confirmed the agreement.
Karzai entered Kandahar in an unarmed convoy to chair a meeting at the bombed-out former residence of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme Taliban leader, his spokesman said. Authorities are searching for Omar, but Agha said he didn't know where he was.
The Karzai spokesman said that with the situation resolved in Kandahar, Karzai planned to go to Kabul, the Afghan capital.
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 to set up a two-year transitional government and draw up a constitution. Zaher Shah has lived in Italy since his 1973 ouster.
Karzai said he hoped that an international force that the anti-Taliban factions have agreed to would arrive before he and his interim government are sworn in to keep security.
U.S. Marines set up roadblocks around Kandahar, searching for wanted terrorists and Taliban leaders. There were no reported encounters with hostile groups.
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.
Elsewhere, a train loaded with 1,000 tons of grain and flour crossed the "Friendship Bridge," the only road connecting Uzbekistan with Afghanistan, after workers reopened the span.
The reopening of the bridge was expected to speed aid to Afghan refugees battling cold, hunger and disease.