U.S. Troops Wrap Up Search for bin Laden

KABUL, Afghanistan?Afghan officials weighed a reported surrender offer from top Taliban figures Tuesday, including the former defense minister, as U.S. troops began winding up an unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden at the bomb-shattered Tora Bora cave complex.

In the southern city of Kandahar, a heavily armed al Qaeda fighter blew himself up rather than be captured as he tried to escape from a hospital where he and six comrades have taken over a ward, refusing to surrender to the city’s new rulers.

The fighter, identified as Mohammad Rasool, jumped from the second-story window at Mir Wais Hospital, found himself surrounded by guards and detonated a grenade, killing himself. The al Qaeda fighters in the hospital have held off guards for weeks by threatening to kill themselves if approached.

A high-ranking security official for Gov. Gul Agha, commander Sadozai, said Tuesday in Kandahar that top Taliban officials sent a messenger three or four days ago saying they wanted to talk about surrendering. The names of the Taliban members and their location were not disclosed, but former Taliban defense minister Mullah Ubaid Ullah is said to be among them.

Agha and others were in a tribal council meeting Tuesday to decide how to handle the surrender offer, said Sadozai, who uses one name only.

At the Pentagon, Gen. Richard Myers said U.S. officials were checking into the reported surrender offer. “Obviously individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect them to be turned over,” said Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Myers said U.S. forces operating in the Khost region of eastern Afghanistan had captured 14 al Qaeda fighters without resistance, including two thought to be senior figures. The two, whom Myers did not identify, were taken to the Marine base at Kandahar airport for interrogation, along with cell phones and laptops found with them.

Illustrating Afghanistan’s deep suffering even after the end of the Taliban, an Associated Press reporting team discovered a village in remote northern Afghanistan where people are struggling to survive on bread made from grass. Mothers whose milk has dried up feed their babies grass porridge.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. war effort, told the AP at his headquarters in Florida that the weeks-long search through the Tora Bora complex in eastern Afghanistan had failed to turn up bin Laden, blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The search would be ending in the next day or so with no clue to bin Laden’s whereabouts, Franks said. U.S. troops could begin pursuing bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, though there was no hard proof the Saudi exile was there, he said.

Myers said U.S. troops would not act “unilaterally” on Pakistani soil, and Islamabad said Tuesday it needed no help to catch al Qaeda members. “We have made all arrangements that those who sneak into Pakistan are arrested,” said Mohammed Aziz Khan, a Pakistani government spokesman.

Allowing troops on Pakistani soil could be sensitive for many Pakistanis and other countries concerned about the spread of U.S. military operations.

Franks said that in the next few days, the U.S. military would gain custody of one or two Taliban or al Qaeda figures of great interest to the United States. He would not elaborate.