Osama bin Laden may have fled the Tora Bora mountain redoubt in eastern Afghanistan.
Both Afghan sources close to Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization and Egyptian defectors say that the Saudi exile may have abandoned them. And a split is emerging between hard-core Algerian fighters and other Arabs, including some Egyptians, now defending the fortress of caves and tunnels in the White Mountains.
"The men are saying that as long as Osama and his top lieutenants are hiding in caves and not doing any of the front-line fighting, they don't want to sacrifice their lives for the Al Qaeda cause," says an Afghan who helped spirit several defecting Egyptian families, including a dozen children, to safety.
American B-52 and F-16 fighter attacks have caused massive rockslides in the Tora Bora mountain valley.
"The bombs are knocking huge boulders off the side of the mountain, and several of them have rolled down on young children," says an Afghan villager who traveled into the pocket.
"Some of the Al Qaeda fighters have become extremely demoralized in the last couple of days," says Pir Bajsham, a senior Afghan intelligence official for eastern Afghanistan. "Some will fight to the last bullet, but we also expect hundreds to surrender when their food and ammunition runs low. It is only a question of when."
Allied airstrikes have targeted the Al Qaeda base at Tora Bora nearly every day for three weeks. Bombing intensified Sunday, but dropped off yesterday as Western-backed Afghan tribal warlords sent guerrilla platoons up rocky paths toward Al Qaeda positions in what one commander described as a three-pronged attack.
"The US air raids have been cut back to allow my men to advance into the mouth of Tora Bora," says Husta Gul, an Afghan officer.
Afghan fighters, resupplied by camel, have edged up to firing posts overlooking the Tora Bora valley, where between 1,000 and 2,000 Arab and Chechen fighters are holed up. Yesterday evening, tribal forces claimed to have captured a ridge on the Milwawa valley next-door to Tora Bora. But for the most part, Western-backed Afghan fighters have made little progress flushing out Arabs and Chechen fighters, despite the defections.
The remoteness of the terrain has forced the ragtag Afghans, many of whom fought in the same mountains against Soviet aggression, to move on foot through intersecting lines of Al Qaeda fire.
And then there are the recurring disputes between ostensibly allied anti-Taliban factions. One recent incident played like a scene from a Mexican Western: The aging warlord, wrapped in a brown blanket, refused to release his prisoner. Suddenly, machine guns cocked and fighters on both sides dived for cover.
Cmdr. Haji Zaman Ghamsharik never flinched. His men spread out in the rocks and aimed their guns at the regional governor's son, Haji Zahir. The governor's son decided to let the matter rest.
"Hold your fire," ordered the warlord.
Moments later, Commander Ghamsharik explained his side of the dispute. "The Taliban gave that man 500 weapons, and so we stopped him from trying to supply Al Qaeda," he said. "I told my people to catch him. The governor's son said that he was their man. That is a lot of [expletive]. I don't care who is supplying Al Qaeda, we must stop them."
Haji Zahir, the governor's son, counters: "[The] accusations are baseless. He just doesn't want us here fighting for Tora Bora. He wants it as his own prize."
Sunday morning's near-shootout highlights the growing problems Western planners face in organizing a coherent fighting force to take on Al Qaeda.
The handful of American military advisers helping target US air strikes in and around Tora Bora are working closely with the ethnic Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance, which is not welcome in the mostly Pashtun Jalalabad region.
The thinking behind the strategy is that Northern Alliance forces can be relied upon more readily than Ghamsharik's ethnic Pashtun fighters.
Ghamsharik's men are from the large Hugani tribe, many of whom have been on bin Laden's payroll in recent months, particularly as Al Qaeda expanded and improved the Tora Bora military base by digging new caves and tunnels.
The Northern Alliance factions, anxious to send more men into the fray, have plenty of Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathizers themselves, however.
Until a month ago, one Northern Alliance fighter, Spin Gul, was in the Taliban trenches at Mazar-e Sharif, on the receiving end of American air strikes. "Twenty-five out of 30 in my bunker were killed by the Americans," he says. "I'll never forgive them."
And while Mr. Gul now is fighting with Western powers, he says catching bin Laden will not be easy. "Osama is like a bird, he can fly away whenever he wants to. You'll never catch him, no matter how hard you try."
There were growing signs yesterday that bin Laden, last seen on Friday, and other Al Qaeda leaders may have fled the besieged mountain base at Tora Bora.
In Washington, US officials said bin Laden is probably still in eastern Afghanistan, a broad description that suggested they believe he may be on the lam. "There has been speculation that he's [bin Laden] in that eastern region, but it's a big country with a very porous border," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. Ms. Clarke said that another top figure, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, was thought to be on the move in Kandahar province, but added: "We don't know with precision where he is."
A column of US marines reportedly was moving toward positions around Kandahar. The former Taliban stronghold surrendered to Afghan tribal leaders on Friday. The marines were securing key terrain "to capture Al Qaeda and enemy forces," military spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton told the Associated Press.
For their part, Pakistani officials said they dispatched helicopter gunships to block a possible escape route out of Tora Bora into their own largely autonomous tribal areas.
Bin Laden reportedly has favored the Tora Bora enclave because it permits a quick escape into Pakistan. The base also offers the option of crossing the White Mountains, albeit through heavy snow, into several other modern terror bases to the south, in Afghanistan's Paktia province.
Despite the demise of the Taliban in major population centers, much of eastern and central Afghanistan remains rife with pro-Al Qaeda sentiment.
Material from the wire services was used for this report.