Marines tighten search for Taliban chief Omar

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

WASHINGTON -- About 200 U.S. Marines searched a former Taliban and al-Qaida compound in southern Afghanistan Tuesday as the hunt for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar continued.

The Marines left their base in the southern city of Kandahar late Monday night in a convoy of vehicles, headed for the compound in Helmand province, said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. They and anti-Taliban Afghan forces were searching the fenced compound of about 14 buildings for information about the radical Islamic militia and the al-Qaida terrorists they harbored, Lowell said.

Another group of about 100 soldiers left the Kandahar base aboard Marine Sea Knight helicopters Monday evening. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim prime minister, said the troops were Marines helping in an operation to try to capture Omar, who has been missing since Kandahar fell to Karzai's forces in early December.

"If he's there, he'll be arrested," Karzai said. "We are determined to see him arrested."

The helicopters, which can hold up to 25 soldiers each, took off toward the northwest just before sunset. A B-52 bomber and fighter jet also could be seen headed in the same direction.

Afghan officials suspect Omar is in the Baghran area, a remote, mountainous region about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. A U.S. intelligence official said that American officials also think Omar probably is there.

Any move against Omar probably also would include U.S. special forces, which are operating with the anti-Taliban Afghan groups that would also join in the hunt. Special forces would help direct airstrikes and give the Afghans advice and supplies.

U.S. officials have refused to say who those soldiers were or what their mission was. Lowell said Tuesday he had no information about them.

The Marines searching the former Taliban compound did not come under hostile fire, although they were equipped for combat and supported by strike helicopters, Lowell said. Tuesday's intelligence-gathering mission was the latest of about a dozen such missions the Marines have undertaken in the past several weeks, Lowell said.

Prisoners arrive

Meanwhile Tuesday, 25 suspected al-Qaida members captured in Pakistan arrived at the detention center on the U.S. base in Kandahar, Lowell said. They had been captured after heavy fighting last month drove them out of Afghanistan's Tora Bora region -- where U.S. officials believe bin Laden had stayed.

The new arrivals brought to 189 the number of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the Kandahar base. Another 12 prisoners are being held by the United States at the Bagram air base north of Kabul, and U.S. forces have one prisoner in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Eight prisoners, including American John Walker Lindh, are being held aboard U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. On Monday, they were moved from the USS Peleliu to the USS Bataan.

The Peleliu is home to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, whose members are preparing to leave Kandahar and return to their ship. Soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division will take over for the Marines at the Kandahar base.

Other Marines at the Kandahar airfield are members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is based on the Bataan.

On Sunday, a U.S. spy drone crashed while returning from a mission in support of the war in Afghanistan, a Central Command statement said. The unmanned plane was not shot down, and its wreckage will be recovered, the statement said.

In other developments:

Bush named an Afghan-born adviser on his national security team as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, an ethnic Pashtun who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the war on terrorism, will work with the U.N. secretary general's representative on Afghanistan.

More British troops arrived in Kabul after an agreement detailing the operation of an international peacekeeping force. A convoy carrying about 70 British soldiers rolled in Monday night to reinforce an initial deployment that has been patrolling the capital and providing security to the interim government.

A U.S. special forces soldier was shot in the leg when his unit came under fire on a road outside of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, officials said. The wound was not life-threatening and the unit was rescued, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Klee, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon contributed to this report

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