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U.S. moves to seal escape routes for bin Laden
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- With a lull on Afghanistan's northern battlefront and a stalemate on its southern one, the United States and its allies moved to seal off potential escape routes -- even at sea -- for Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban, who now hold only one-quarter of Afghanistan's territory, declared that they did not know the whereabouts of bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"We have no idea where he is," Taliban spokesman Syed Tayyab Agha told journalists in the southern Afghanistan border town of Spinboldak, in Taliban-controlled territory. "There is no relation right now. There is no communication."
Agha said the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was safe in a secret location -- and that the militia would never abandon the southern city of Kandahar, their home base and spiritual center.
"We will not give any chance to anybody to disturb our Islamic rule in Kandahar and other provinces," he said.
President Bush launched the military campaign against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Agha said America and its allies "should forget the 11 September attacks" because Afghans had nothing to do with them.
"The attacks have taken place in America and the people who performed and did the attacks, they were in America, so this is not something connecting with Afghanistan," he said. "This is not our problem."
But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz rejected Agha's comments during a news conference at the Pentagon.
"They suggested that we should forget about Sept. 11 and move on, and I can assure them we will not forget about Sept. 11.," Wolfowitz said. "We are moving on, and I think before long the world will forget about the Taliban."
Over the past week, ethnic Pashtun tribal leaders from across the border in Pakistan have been trying to persuade the Taliban to surrender Kandahar peacefully -- efforts that appear to have bogged down.
But the American general commanding the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and a coalition spokesman both said the Taliban would be expelled from the city, one way or the other.
"Kandahar is still under the control of the Taliban, but that control is loosening," coalition spokesman Kenton Keith told reporters in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, told a news conference in Afghanistan's northern neighbor Uzbekistan thatthe allies would keep up relentless pressure on both the Taliban and bin Laden.
"We need to complete the work in Kandahar ... and most importantly we need to complete the destruction of the al-Qaida terrorist network," he said.
The U.S.-backed northern alliance, which now controls most of the country and the capital Kabul, has agreed to attend power-sharing talks in Bonn, Germany next week, and the search is on for leaders to represent the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
Germany announced Wednesday that the talks would be held in Bonn rather than Berlin, as had previously been expected. An aide to the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, said his delegation would include at least one woman.
To cut off a potential escape route for bin Laden, the U.S. Navy has given notice it will stop and board merchant shipping off the coast of Pakistan if the ships are suspected of carrying him or other al-Qaida leaders, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday in Washington.
The notice to mariners was issued Tuesday, he said. Lapan did not know if any boardings had been conducted. The Navy has a large fleet in the northern Arabian Sea able to conduct such actions.
Franks, the commander, said the siege of the northern city of Kunduz -- the last Taliban redoubt in the north -- would end in defeat for its defenders: Taliban forces and fighters loyal to bin Laden.
"I don't know how long that battle will continue, but at the end of the day, we will prevail in the city of Kunduz," said Franks. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said talks were underway in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif to negotiate the surrender of Kunduz.
There was little activity on the battle front Wednesday, either in the skies or on the ground.
The alliance's main commander in the north, Atta Mohammed, said terms of any surrender deal with Afghan Taliban fighters in Kunduz would not necessarily apply to Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fighters loyal to bin Laden holed up with the Taliban.
In New York, a Western diplomat at the United Nations said some 3,000 fighters from bin Laden's al-Qaida network were believed trapped in the Kunduz region. The diplomat spoke on condition he not be named.
"We can't guarantee the safety of the foreign fighters because they have created a humanitarian calamity in Afghanistan," Mohammed said in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Refugees fleeing Kunduz have reported that the foreign fighters were preventing a Taliban surrender and shooting would-be defectors.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that the Pentagon would like to move AC-130 gunships closer to northern Afghanistan to support anti-Taliban forces in their fight for Kunduz. He would not confirm reports that Uzbekistan has agreed to allow AC-130s to fly from its territory and said none has been based there so far.
"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north, particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz because that particular weapons system and platform can put out an enormous amount of ordnance with a great deal of precision," he told reporters in route to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina.
AC-130s have been used heavily against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in southern Afghanistan. They are equipped with 20mm Gatling guns, each of which can fire 2,500 rounds of ammunition per minute.
On Wednesday, the bodies of four journalists -- who were dragged from their cars and killed by gunmen in eastern Afghanistan on Monday -- arrived in Pakistan with a Red Cross convoy.
Two were from the Reuters news agency, one from the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and one from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.