U.S. sealing bin Laden escape routes

Thursday, November 22, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The United States and its allies moved to seal off potential escape routes for Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan -- even by sea -- while a spokesman for the Taliban said Wednesday that the Islamic militia no longer knew the terror suspect's whereabouts.

"They keep cutting and bobbing and dodging and weaving, but we keep looking," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said when asked how close the military was to finding bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts.

Taliban spokesman Syed Tayyab Agha said the Taliban have "no idea" where bin Laden, the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, was located. "There is no relation right now. There is no communication," he told journalists in the southern Afghanistan border town of Spinboldak, in Taliban-controlled territory.

Navy to stop ships

To cut off a potential escape route for bin Laden if he manages to slip out of landlocked Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan, the U.S. Navy gave notice Tuesday that it will stop and board merchant shipping off the Pakistani coast if the ships are suspected of carrying him or other al-Qaida leaders, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday in Washington.

Gen. Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the Navy so far has not stopped and boarded any ships off of Pakistan. He said there was no specific information indicating that terrorist leaders will try to flee by sea.

The Navy has a large fleet in the northern Arabian Sea able to interdict shipping, but the long, sparsely populated Pakistani coast is ideal for smugglers, with many places where small boats can pick up passengers. The only major port is Karachi, also home to several hardline Islamic parties that support the Taliban and bin Laden, and the towns of Omara and Pasni have harbors that could take small boats -- but otherwise there are few natural harbors.

U.S. forces have destroyed two or three enemy aircraft in recent weeks, but officials do not know if they were carrying Taliban or al-Qaida leaders trying to flee Afghanistan, Pace said at the Pentagon.

As many as 1,500 Marines specially trained for complex missions such as counterterrorism probably will be sent to Afghanistan soon, perhaps this week, a senior U.S. official said, though no final decision has been made on their use. The Marines could provide security for other U.S. forces or help Army and Air Force special operations troops expand the search for bin Laden.

President Bush launched the campaign against the Taliban in early October for their refusal to hand over bin Laden. After weeks of U.S. bombing against Taliban positions, a northern alliance advance swept the Islamic militia out of almost all the north and took Kabul on Nov. 13.

'Good start,' says Bush

On Wednesday, Bush told cheering U.S. troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., that the United States had "made a good start in Afghanistan, yet there is still a lot to be done."

"There are still terrorists on the loose in Afghanistan, yet we will find and destroy their network piece by piece," he said.

The Taliban vowed to fight for the one-quarter of Afghanistan's territory still in their hands, despite attempts to negotiate their surrender in their last main bastions -- Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north.

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