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Americans cease airstrikes on Afghan mountain complex

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KABUL, Afghanistan — After days of intensive airstrikes, the U.S. military stopped bombing a mountain honeycombed with suspected terrorist hideouts Tuesday, enabling civilians living nearby who had fled the onslaught to return to their homes, many smashed into rubble.

Pakistani troops searched vehicles on their side of the border across from the former al-Qaida base at Zawar in eastern Afghanistan, seeking Arabs and other foreigners who could be members of Osama bin Laden's terror network trying to escape. None were immediately discovered.

U.S. officials in Washington said the military was now seeking new targets in its hunt for die-hard supporters of bin Laden and his Taliban allies.

The military said its airstrikes destroyed the complex, flattening 60 buildings and sealing about 50 caves. In Saidgi, the Pakistani town across the border, Afghan refugees who had fled the bombings said many of the buildings were their homes.

Abdullah Gorbaz, 52, said at least 12 civilians were killed and cattle herds were decimated.

"There is no more bombing, so we are going back to our homes," said Allam Gul, 45, another of the refugees.

Meanwhile, the United Nations beseeched countries that have pledged aid to immediately follow through, saying that paying civil servants is crucial to the post-Taliban administration. A conference is scheduled next week in Tokyo to raise money for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, the promises that were made haven't been taken seriously," Muhammad Amin Farhang, Afghanistan's reconstruction minister, told the German television network ARD. "Over the last few days, we have spoken very intensively with international institutions about the priorities."

Donor nations have agreed to contribute $20 million so far, but as of Dec. 31 only $2 million had been handed over, U.N. officials have said. Some 210,000 civil servants and 25,000 police officers have not been paid in months.

In the southern city of Kandahar, where U.S.-led coalition forces have established their largest base in Afghanistan, an active threat remained from armed holdouts.

Marine Capt. Dan Greenwood said that patrols spotted seven men who appeared to be armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers heading toward an abandoned mud-walled house outside the base perimeter around sunset Monday.

The same area was used by gunmen Thursday to launch an attack while a C-17 transport plane took off with the first batch of 20 prisoners from bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the ousted Taliban regime, heading from a detention center to a high-security jail at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Marines sent out a light-armored vehicle to investigate, Greenwood said. The men were not found, but rockets, mortars and mortar fuses were. Demolitions experts blew up the house where a web of tunnels was discovered.

In Spinboldak, south of Kandahar near the Pakistan border, provincial authorities replaced tribal leader Mullah Akhter Jan on Monday, accusing him of spreading lawlessness and corruption.

With a voluntary disarmament program in Spinboldak moving slowly, forces loyal to Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha, in the presence of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, also seized about 100 trucks of arms and ammunition and went from house-to-house seizing more weapons, said Yusef Pashtun, spokesman for the governor.

U.N. aid officials implored Pakistan on Monday to let more than 13,000 Afghan refugees into a border camp so they can receive aid and protection. They have massed in the past few days on a wind-swept plain near Kili Faiso camp, just across the border into Pakistan.

Many had been fleeing cold, drought and conflict in Kandahar and the adjacent province of Helmand, U.N. spokesman Jordan Dey said.

Pakistan, which has officially closed its border with Afghanistan, has long said it has all the Afghan refugees it can handle. It has registered 1.2 million, but the real figure is believed to be far higher.

Elsewhere, some remote mountain villages south of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif have been snowed in and are unreachable even by donkey, Dey said. The hardest-hit towns included Armakh, Abdullah Gan and Baluj.

An Associated Press reporting team that visited Abdullah Gan last week found people trying to survive on grass.

The World Food Program plans to venture farther into mountainous areas to find pockets of needy Afghans and has rented every donkey available to carry food over the rugged terrain, Dey said.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said that intense airstrikes had flattened the Zawar area and that it was "time to go look elsewhere" for additional al-Qaida members and their elusive leader bin Laden, blamed for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washigton that killed thousands.

Neither Stufflebeem nor Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke would say where U.S. forces might focus next.

U.S. intelligence believes that bin Laden most likely is in Afghanistan or Pakistan, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Thirty al-Qaida prisoners arrived Monday in Guantanamo. At least three of the prisoners there are British nationals, according to the British Foreign Office.