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U.S. winds up search at Tora Bora

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan officials on Tuesday weighed a reported surrender offer from top Taliban figures, 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-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 on Tuesday to decide how to handle the surrender offer, said Sadozai, who uses one name only.

Illustrating the country'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 weekslong 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.

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

As part of the hunt for remaining Taliban and al-Qaida members, U.S. warplanes have been striking a "hotbed" of terrorist support at the al-Qaida base at Zawar Kili near Khost, where bin Laden's followers have been emerging, possibly from the Tora Bora area.

Pakistan has said its troops arrested 23 foreign fighters trying to cross from Afghanistan over the weekend. At least 350 al-Qaida members, including more then 300 Arab nationals, have been arrested in Pakistan after crossing the border.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that U.S. planes dropped leaflets in eastern Afghanistan urging civilians not to give al-Qaida fugitives refuge, warning they could be caught in airstrikes. Local leaders have denied the presence of terrorists in their areas and urged a halt to the bombings.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a delegation of U.S. senators made visits under extremely tight security to Bagram Air Base near Kabul. They met soldiers from their countries and the leader of Afghanistan's new interim administration, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.

Blair and the senators said the Sept. 11 attacks were partly the result of the international community turning its back on Afghanistan after the decade-long Soviet occupation ended in 1989, allowing the country to become what the British leader called a terrorist "breeding ground." They vowed not to repeat the mistake.

"On our part it is very critical that we remain here," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "We're going to be here a lot longer than the Taliban."

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said food was running low among Afghan communities struggling to survive the winter.

Near the western city of Herat, the number of people at the Maklash refugee camp has tripled to at least 300,000 in the past 30 days, aid workers said. Toilets, clean water, food and shelter are scarce. About 1,000 more people arrive every day, mostly from northwestern Badghis and Ghor provinces. The newcomers say that back home, it is snowing, food has run out and people are dying of cold.

Thousands of refugees who returned home to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran are turning back because there is no food, said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Most of the villages they are coming back to are in ruins," he said.

In other developments:

—Canada announced Monday that 750 military personnel will join U.S. forces trying to root out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan. They should begin arriving in about 10 days.

— A contingent of 70 German troops and 32 Dutch soldiers set off Tuesday to join the British-led international stabilization force in Kabul, which is expected to reach a total of 4,500 troops.

An AP team that visited the village of Bonavash, the most accessible community in Abdullah Gan, a remote mountain region of about 10,000 people in the north, found that people were eating grass and suffering from starvation. Many are sick, unable to stand or leave their homes.

"We are waiting to die," said Ghalam Raza, a 42-year-old man with a hacking cough, stomach pain and bleeding bowels. "If food does not come, if the situation does not change, we will eat this . . . until we die."