AP Photo XJCM102
By MATT KELLEY
Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. officials have warned Afghan opposition groups that American support will be cut off if they let Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar go free.
Following reports that the Taliban may be ready to give up their final stronghold of Kandahar, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday any deal must include bringing Omar to justice. Omar's Taliban sheltered Sept. 11 terror suspect Osama bin Laden when the radical Islamic militia controlled most of Afghanistan.
"If you're asking, would an arrangement with Omar, where he could, quote, 'live in dignity' in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is no," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
The Taliban began surrendering Kandahar, the last city under their control, on Friday. Two months of continuous U.S. bombing and advances by opposition forces drove them from most of the country.
"The Taliban is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan," said Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai. He said that Omar is missing and would be arrested if he's found.
"I have no idea where Mullah Omar is, but of course I want to arrest him. I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time as run out," Karzai said.
Karzai, who was slightly wounded by the errant U.S. bomb that killed three American soldiers and six Afghans on Wednesday, had earlier refused to say whether he would offer or has offered amnesty to Omar.
If Omar is not killed in the fighting, the United States would "strongly prefer" that he be captured and handed over to the Americans, Rumsfeld said.
The anti-Taliban forces have gotten the message, said Haron Amin, the Washington representative of the northern alliance of Afghan opposition groups.
"It has been communicated to us that if we arrange a peace plan that allows for the release of Omar, Karzai would lose support from America, and the northern alliance would lose the support of the coalition," he said.
The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will not end once Kandahar falls, Rumsfeld said. Pockets of resistance remain, and bin Laden still has not been found.
"It would be premature to suggest that once Kandahar surrenders that, therefore, we kind of relax and say, 'Well, that takes care of that,' because it doesn't," Rumsfeld said.
In their first offensive ground action, American Marines attacked a Taliban convoy near Kandahar on Friday, killing seven fighters, a Marines spokesman in southern Afghanistan said. No Marines were injured in the action.
American warplanes and special operations troops have started helping Afghans who are fighting al-Qaida forces near cave and tunnel complexes in the mountains south of Jalalabad, a top Pentagon official said Thursday. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the area.
U.S. troops working with opposition fighters are relaying information about suspected hide-outs or al-Qaida troop concentrations to warplanes above, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said. The pilots are using that information to target their satellite-guided bombs, said Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This kind of air-ground coordination with opposition forces has been used successfully in wresting control from the Taliban in the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, and Pace said he expects it to work in the mountainous east, as well.
"They're able to see the caves that are active, they can see the caves that are not, and we're able to provide much more direct support to them," Pace said.
Terrorists are believed to be holed up in five to 10 cave complexes in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. U.S. intelligence has not been able to confirm reports of the death of bin Laden's top spiritual adviser, Ayman al-Zawahri, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. warplanes will continue to drop "cave-buster" bombs on the mountain hide-outs, ranging from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds apiece, Pace added.
Asked if the caves would be the last area U.S. and opposition forces would attack, Rumsfeld said that there are still "pockets of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in nontrivial numbers," throughout the country and outside urban areas.
This presents a problem for assisting refugees, Rumsfeld said, acknowledging that such dangers are preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching all Afghans who need it.
"The people on the ground are doing, in many cases, the best they can. They're trying to provide a stable, secure situation. There are criminals. There is disorder. There has been war," Rumsfeld said, adding, "It's going to take a little bit of time."
------On the Web: Pentagon: http://www.defenselink.mil