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House-to-House Search for Mullah Omar

Friday, 04 January 2002 12:00 AM

Officials of the new interim government in Kabul said the troops are looking for Mullah Omar in a narrow tribal belt in southwestern Afghanistan.

They contradicted an earlier report by their reconstruction minister, Mohammed Amin Farhang, who said, "Mullah Omar may have already been arrested.”

A spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry later said in Kabul that the Taliban leader has "not yet been arrested but we are positive that he will be, soon."

Farhang told Germany's ARD state television network that he has "heard Mullah Omar has been arrested."

Mullah Omar is the second most wanted man in Afghanistan after suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Washington has announced a $10-million reward for any information leading to his capture, dead or alive.

Although the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has already toppled the Taliban regime, both bin Laden and Mullah Omar slipped out of Kandahar before the anti-Taliban forces captured the city early last month.

Bin Laden, who was believed to have escaped to another hideout in eastern Afghanistan, reportedly fled again when Washington's Afghan allies overran his Tora Bora cave complex.

The claim that Mullah Omar may have already been captured followed a statement by Pentagon officials in Washington Thursday that they expect the interim Afghan government to "hand over two very interesting" detainees to the United States within the next day.

They said one of the prisoners is "a Taliban leader and the other an al-Qaeda leader." They refused to give further details on the men's identities and urged journalists to wait another day.

Earlier Thursday, a spokesman for Kandahar's new governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, told journalists that Mullah Omar might have been hiding at Baghran in southwestern Afghanistan.

The spokesman said anti-Taliban forces had already surrounded his suspected hideout and had held "very successful negotiations with the tribal leaders sheltering Mullah Omar and several hundred Taliban militants."

Also on Thursday, officials of the new Afghan government in Kabul said they were "very positive" that Mullah Omar "can be captured without bloodshed."

The United States also mounted a major offensive Thursday against a suspected al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

Four B-1 bombers, three F-18 fighters and an AC-130 gunship attacked the suspected training camp in Khost, south of Tora Bora near the Pakistan border -- the same camp the United States attacked with cruise missiles in 1998.

This time, the camp was manned by al-Qaeda members who were regrouping, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

At the Pentagon Thursday, Rumsfeld defended the so-far fruitless search for bin Laden and Mullah Omar. "One has to appreciate the difficulty of tracking down a single human being anywhere," Rumsfeld said. "I mean, obviously our goal is to find them, and we intend to keep pursuing that. But our real goal is to see that people are not committing terrorist acts."

At Baghran, deeper within Afghanistan, local forces around the town are negotiating with as many as 1,500 Taliban fighters, and a surrender might include allowing Taliban leader Mullah Omar to escape as he did when Kandahar fell, according to local news reports.

Rumsfeld insisted the government of Afghanistan is committed to handing Mullah Omar over to the United States if he is caught. "I know that the interim government is right on the same sheet of music with us with respect to this. They want the Taliban caught. They agree with us," he said.

Meanwhile, Marines and Special Forces soldiers continued combing caves and vacated buildings for information -- documents, videotapes and other materials that could provide information about al-Qaeda's global network and future terror plots -- "some of which ... has been fruitful in stopping terrorist acts, we believe, around the world," Myers said.

In Pakistan, troops have been deployed in a tribal zone bordering Afghanistan to prevent Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners from entering the country.

The area, called Mohmand, enjoys a semi-autonomous status and Pakistan had earlier agreed not to deploy troops there.

"But because of fears that al-Qaeda and Taliban fugitives may enter the area, tribal elders have allowed the government to deploy the army,” a senior official said in Peshawar, a Pakistani town bordering Afghanistan.

U.S. forces in the region now have 248 prisoners -- 225 with the Marines in Kandahar, 14 at Bagram airfield, eight on the USS Bataan and one in Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Navy is building a high-security detention facility for a limited number of prisoners at a naval base in Guantamano Bay, Cuba.

Rumsfeld said some U.S. military bases also "have vacancies" in their jails that could be filled by detainees if numbers required it.

"Needless to say, our desire is to not have a lot. That is not what we're about -- gathering up maximum numbers," Rumsfeld said. "We would like to make sure that the ones that ought to be secured so they don't go out and kill more people are, in fact, secured, and ones that need not be are not, and that, in every event, the maximum amount of intelligence is extracted from them first."

On the diplomatic front, there were several developments. In Pakistan, the former Taliban ambassador to that country, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, was taken prisoner on Thursday.

The new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilizad, will travel to Kabul shortly to set a date for Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim government chairman, to meet with President Bush in Washington.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Officials of the new interim government in Kabul said the troops are looking for Mullah Omar in a narrow tribal belt in southwestern Afghanistan. They contradicted an earlier report by their reconstruction minister, Mohammed Amin Farhang, who said, Mullah Omar may have...
Friday, 04 January 2002 12:00 AM
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