Osama bin Laden escaped the embattled Tora Bora base to Pakistan 10 days ago with the help of tribesmen from the Ghilzi tribe, according to a firsthand account yesterday by a senior Al Qaeda operative and Saudi financier.
Abu Jaffar, who spoke from an Afghan village still sympathetic to Mr. bin Laden and his fighters, says that several days later, bin Laden sent his 19-year-old, married son Salah Uddin back to act on his behalf. He is now the only bin Laden family member inside the Tora Bora terror base.
"Osama bin Laden traveled out of Tora Bora two times in this Ramadan holy month. He left to meet Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar about three weeks ago and stayed with him near Kandahar," Mr. Jaffar says. "He left again just over a week ago and was headed to Pakistan, where he was helped across the border by Pashtun tribesmen."
This account of bin Laden's movements is the first detailed evidence that the Saudi national has escaped the nightly inferno of US bombing raids on Tora Bora.
The account also matched earlier accounts of bin Laden's movements from his arrival in the White Mountains two days before the departure of the Taliban from Jalalabad and his lengthy dealings with sympathizers in the Pakistani town of Parachinar.
American and Afghan officials, who have been insisting that bin Laden is in Eastern Afghanistan, have sounded less certain in recent days about their own accounts of the movements of the world's most wanted man.
The interview with the Saudi financier and religious scholar, Mr. Jaffar, was conducted through an Arabic-speaking reporter and interpreter in a remote village at the base of Tora Bora.
Jaffar had stayed in the village for one night, after his foot was blown off by a stray cluster bomb. He had stepped on the bomb after exiting his family's cave amid heavy bombing to look for injured persons. He was traveling yesterday with his Egyptian wife, a daughter, and a 13-year-old Yemeni orphan boy. The four, who had been brought four hours on foot from inside the embattled Al Qaeda base, intended to leave clandestinely in the morning for Pakistan.
Jaffar, who traveled with bin Laden in a truck out of Jalalabad, says: "Osama is my good friend. My own son was working with his son Salah Uddin in Ghazni.
"After Osama left 10 days ago, he contacted us inside Tora Bora to tell us that he was sending his own son to be with us there. His son traveled through Paktia province with 30 Arabs and 50 Afghan fighters.
"Yesterday, Salah Uddin told me to leave, and he gave me money because I will likely need another operation on my leg."
During the interview, the Saudi financier, who studied in Cairo's Al Azhar University, reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of British notes to show that he had enough money for his travels.
Like hundreds of other Arabs with Al Qaeda ties who have gone before him, Jaffar intends to flee Afghanistan by traveling north and then east on a road in the direction of the famed Khyber Pass before crossing the Kabul River in a wooden boat and traveling into a remote tribal area of Pakistan.
The Saudi financier's Egyptian wife cried throughout the two-hour interview. "I've seen my sweet brothers and sisters killed by fire from the sky. Alas, I've begged them to leave, and they have refused. They want to die there for the sake of Allah."
Jaffar says that most of the family of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor known as the right-hand man of bin Laden, have been killed by the US bombing. He says that earlier reports - mostly Afghan - of Mr. Zawahiri's own death had proved false. This account matched an obituary for Zawahiri's family, but not for himself, in an Egyptian newspaper last week.
Only yesterday, one of two senior Afghan warlords said that only bin Laden and his top 22 deputies should be brought to justice. "The rest will be able to go free," says the regional security chief, Hazrat Ali, who has been working closely with persons he refers to as "US military advisers" on the ground.
Most Al Qaeda fighters inside Tora Bora had been prepared to give themselves up after the departure of bin Laden.
But when Al Qaeda loyalists were informed a week ago that "scores of British and American commandos" had entered the region at Jalalabad, a decision was taken by the fighters to stand and "fight the infidels," Jaffar says.
Jaffar, who characterized himself as a moderate among the hundreds of hard-core fighters still inside Tora Bora, says that Chechen and Algerian fighters had resisted surrender more than Saudi, Yemeni, or Egyptian nationals.
The Saudi financier, who left the Tora Bora camp only Tuesday afternoon, says that the idea of a "surrender" was now only acceptable to a small segment of the remaining Al Qaeda fighters.
"I was involved in the discussions about a peaceful surrender," he says. "We had agreed to send two men to discuss the issue, including our demands for amnesty and safe passage out of Afghanistan."
He says that Chechen fighters, who are manning heavy machinegun posts, are the most resistant to the idea of surrendering.
Both Jaffar and his wife provided the first detailed account of how bad life has become inside the Tora Bora base. The partial siege of the base by Western-backed Afghans and US Special Forces has depleted food supplies and left many Al Qaeda members looking for a way out.
Egyptian and Afghan sources close to Al Qaeda say that 120 Al Qaeda fighters inside Tora Bora have been killed by US air raids in the past three weeks.
But the Arabs and Chechens inside Tora Bora still have a functioning hospital, according to Jaffar. His leg was amputated there. He says that most Al Qaeda members do not leave their elaborate cave complex unless they have to relieve themselves.
Jaffar also says that for two weeks, scores, if not hundreds, of Arabs have been safely spirited out of the Tora Bora camp. He says that some senior members in the current Jalalabad government are aware of the Al Qaeda members' movements, and that the journeys have been paved with hard cash.
Most of the Arabs escaping to safety are women children and old people. Wounded soldiers and some young men have also been permitted by bin Laden's son to leave the embattled base.