US bombers early Monday launched the latest in a succession of punishing bombing raids on the mountain ranges of eastern Afghanistan, in the hope of finally dislodging terror suspect Osama bin Laden from his mountain fortress.
The air strikes strafed the White Mountains around Tora Bora after fighter planes launched at least 10 attacks around 6 am (0130 GMT) -- about one hour before two B-52s were sent in to add even more fire power to the assault.
US forces have targeted the Tora Bora mountain fortress as they step up efforts to ferret out bin Laden, believed to be holed up in the cave complex along with hundreds of die-hard al-Qaeda fighters.
Afghan forces have besieged the area, but as of early Monday there were still no signs of a ground attack.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's incoming interim leader, Hamid Karzai, was called upon to use his best negotiating skills Sunday to end a potentially bloody standoff over the newly-liberated Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold.
Karzai told AFP that he had successfully brokered a deal between Mullah Naqibullah, to whom the Taliban had surrendered the city on Friday, and former governor Gul Agha.
"It was agreed that Gul Agha will be in charge of security and the administration of Kandahar. He will continue his mandate until the nomination of a real administration in Afghanistan," said Karzai, speaking by telephone.
With the dispute resolved, Karzai said his top priority now was to travel to Kabul to prepare to take up the post of interim prime minister on December 22.
"We are trying to bring peace to all of Afghanistan. We are trying to bring security to the whole of Afghanistan," Karzai told CNN before the breakthrough.
Witnesses said rival armed gangs and small numbers of US special forces had been roaming the Kandahar after Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar fled with many of his men, leaving the two opposition warlords to fight over power.
Omar's whereabouts are unknown.
In Washington, Pentagon press officer Glenn Flood said between 80 and 85 strike aircraft -- mostly FA-18 fighter jets flying from aircraft carriers stationed in the area -- flew sorties over Afghanistan on Saturday.
Long-range B-52 bombers also took to the skies, dropping leaflets around Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kunduz, the Pentagon said.
Local Afghan commander Haji Mohammad Zaman said he was "100 percent certain" bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area -- and Washington seemed to agree.
US Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC News that "the preponderance of the reporting" suggests that the Saudi-born dissident remains in Afghanistan, in the "general area" of Tora Bora.
But US General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted bin Laden was not the sole target of the US campaign in Afghanistan.
"Even if we captured him this afternoon, things would not be over," he said. "Our mission is to destroy the whole network."
As US-backed forces stepped up the hunt for bin Laden and Omar, who has threatened to regroup Taliban forces for a guerrilla counteroffensive, there were fresh reports of factional fighting threatening the UN-backed peace deal forged in Germany on December 5.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said that seven people were killed and many more injured in fierce fighting overnight between rival clans seeking control of Lashkar Gah, 150 kilometers (100 miles) west of Kandahar.
One prominent Northern Alliance commander, however, pledged Sunday not to resort to force despite his dissatisfaction with the makeup of the interim government.
General Abdul Rashid Dostum said the historic power-sharing deal "did not work out as I would have liked."
"But in any event, there will be no war," he said. "The dividing out of power will not now go on by means of force. We will hold negotiations in Kabul. The rule of law will return."
As residents in Kabul, Kandahar and the border town of Spin Boldak complained of spreading looting and brutality as various armed factions fill the post-Taliban power vacuum, there is growing pressure on the United Nations to move quickly.
A seven-member United Nations team was in Kabul Sunday to prepare the ground for a peacekeeping force that would oversee the transition of power.
British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said that Britain would consider leading the force, though Germany has also been cited as a possible lead nation. Troops from Australia, Canada, France, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan and Turkey are reportedly also likely to take part.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan confirmed that December 22, the date the new interim Afghan administration is due to take over in Kabul, is a "target date" for deployment of an international force.
US officials have said there are no plans to take on a long-term peacekeeping role in Afghanistan once bin Laden and his top supporters have been captured or killed. However, officials have said the US-led "war against terrorism" will continue elsewhere.
However any extension of the war -- Yemen, Sudan and Iraq have also been named as possible targets -- could strain relations between Washington and its allies.
The UN chief warned that a Security Council resolution backing strikes on Afghanistan did not automatically authorize further attacks on other countries.
"Any attempt to take military action in other parts of the world would be something the (UN Security) Council would have to take up," Annan said in Oslo, where he was to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
US officials would not say Sunday what charges captured US Taliban fighter John Walker would face, but they said he may be helped by cooperating with US officials.
Walker has been in US custody in Afghanistan since December 1, after emerging from a week of fierce fighting between the militia's troops and US-backed opposition forces at a prison fortress near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin following visits to Central Asian republics in which he strengthened military cooperation with Kazakhstan and persuaded Uzbekistan to open the Friendship Bridge into northern Afghanistan -- AFP
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