Taliban's leader believed to be in southern Afghanistan

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Mohammed Omar, the mullah who led the Taliban to its downfall, is believed to be holed up with hundreds of fighters in south-central Afghanistan, an intelligence officer for Kandahar's new governor said Monday.

Like thousands of other Taliban, Omar fled the city of the movement's birth as the militia collapsed. Unlike most of them, the United States is determined to see him captured -- and plans to offer a $10 million reward.

"We're simply looking for him and we're going to keep looking for him as long as it takes," the U.S. war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, said Friday.

So far, he's proven hard to find.

Omar had instructed his followers to defend Kandahar to the death. But as opposition forces closed in this month, the Taliban agreed to surrender -- then bolted in the dead of night.

When tribal forces entered the city on Dec. 7, Omar was nowhere to be found. An old friend, fellow Taliban founder Mohammed Khaqzar, said the Taliban leader had fled days earlier.

Monday's announcement by Haji Gulalai, the intelligence chief for Kandahar governor Gul Agha, was the first news on Omar's whereabouts in weeks. Franks said Friday that there were no good leads on his location.

Near mountain range

Gulalai said "intelligence information" indicated Omar and several hundred fighters were hiding near Baghran. The town 100 miles northwest of Kandahar is at the foot of a vast mountain range filled with caves and tunnels, where a fugitive could disappear for months or even years.

It dwarfs the Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan, where tribal fighters and U.S. special forces needed nine weeks to dislodge al-Qaida guerrillas and conquer their mountain warrens -- still finding no sign of the man most wanted by the United States, Osama bin Laden.

Spokesmen for Agha previously said they knew the "general area" where Omar was, but would not identify it for what they called security reasons.

Almost no photographs exist of Omar, who lost an eye to a shrapnel wound while fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

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