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JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) _ Workers filled in bomb craters and swept the runway Tuesday at Jalalabad's airport in northeastern Afghanistan, saying they were under orders to ready the airfield for U.S. planes within 72 hours.

The eastern city is a base in the search for fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden, who some people think may be hiding in the White Mountains south of here.

Anti-Taliban forces in Nangarhar province do not have any aircraft of their own, but U.S. helicopters have landed at the airport over the last three nights. Workers had assembled a 6-foot satellite communications dish near the control tower.

``The Americans told our engineer that they want the runway repaired and cleared within 72 hours,'' said Zameer Alam, who was overseeing workers filling in a crater left by U.S. bombs in early October.

He said the United States wanted to begin landing planes as early as Thursday night.

Guards said American servicemen unloaded boxes for fighters loyal to Hazrat Ali, the provincial security chief. They did not know what was in the boxes.

Both Ali and Pentagon officials have said about 20 U.S. special operations troops are on the ground in Nangarhar province to search for bin Laden and his men, suspected to be hiding in the White Mountains along the border with Pakistan. U.S. officials say the special forces are working with local Afghans to collect information.

A top Pentagon official, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, said Monday that U.S. special forces are not conducting a cave-to-cave search for bin Laden, but rather helping to locate bombing targets.

``This is an area that is pretty well known'' to U.S. military planners as ``an area where Taliban and al-Qaida forces have been and in numbers,'' he said.

Ali said Monday that he was ready to lay siege to the mountainous Tora Bora cave hide-out where hundreds of al-Qaida members _ perhaps even bin Laden himself _ are thought to be holed up.

Ali said he sent a delegation of elders from Jalalabad to negotiate the surrender of non-Afghan fighters hiding in the mountains. Another group of elders, claiming to represent the fighters, brought back a response _ reputedly from bin Laden, he said.

``They gave a message to our elders from Osama bin Laden: `I don't want to fight the (Muslim forces), but if I find some foreign troops, I must fight them,''' Ali said.

He could not vouch for the veracity of the elders' claim to represent bin Laden.

Backed by a resolution from the Eastern Shura, or council, which controls the Jalalabad area, Ali said he had 1,500 men ready to enter the White Mountains to drive out the non-Afghans _ primarily Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks _ who have been fighting with al-Qaida and the Taliban.

``That is our aim, to fight the terrorists in that area. It is the last and strongest al-Qaida base left in our country,'' Ali said. He said the assault could begin in the next few days.

For weeks, rumors of bin Laden's presence in the White Mountains, specifically at the former anti-Soviet guerrilla cave complex at Tora Bora, have spread throughout eastern Afghanistan.

Anti-Taliban leaders have said they believe bin Laden is at Tora Bora or another cave complex known as Mawal, 45 miles southwest of Jalalabad.

Former Taliban members and northern alliance leaders in Kabul, however, believe bin Laden is in the southern city of Kandahar, preparing a last stand with the only remaining Taliban force of consequence.

Tora Bora is a well-known cave complex built in the 1980s with U.S. funding as a headquarters for guerrillas resisting the decade of Soviet occupation. Ali, who fought the Soviets from Tora Bora, described it as an impregnable fortress.