Pentagon doubts report that Omar is negotiating his surrender

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Defense Department said Wednesday that it doubts negotiations under way for the surrender of Taliban forces include their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban fighters who have been holding out near the city of Baghran were negotiating with anti-Taliban forces, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem.

"But I think its a leap of faith if we believe that that is on the behalf of Mullah Omar himself," Stufflebeem said. "These are Taliban forces looking to negotiate themselves out of a predicament."

A commander of the anti-Taliban forces, Jamal Khan, said his officials had confirmed that Omar was in hiding somewhere in Baghran, a mountainous region north of Kandahar.

Afghan military leaders have been negotiating indirectly with Omar for two days through Baghran's grand council of tribal leaders, said Khan.

But Stufflebeem said at a Pentagon news conference: "I don't know that there are ongoing negotiations specific to Omar."

Omar is wanted by the United States because his radical Islamic government has harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

The last time surrender talks with Omar were announced, he slipped away from the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where U.S. sources say virtually the entire Taliban leadership somehow managed to flee and leave the city to anti-Taliban fighters.

Stufflebeem said U.S. special forces were continuing to look for Omar and bin Laden. But he did not confirm Afghan reports that U.S. troops were participating in a major operation to capture Omar near Baghran.

Meanwhile, U.S. Central Command has confirmed that Marines searched a former Taliban and al-Qaida compound in southern Afghanistan.

Tuesday's intelligence-gathering mission by about 200 Marines was the latest of about a dozen such forays the Marines have undertaken in the past several weeks, said Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the command in Tampa, Fla.

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, Lowell said. 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.

The Marines were equipped for combat supported by strike helicopters, Lowell said.

Another group of about 100 soldiers left the Kandahar base aboard Marine helicopters Monday evening. Lowell said he had no information about them. U.S. special forces likely would be involved in any search for the Taliban leader, helping to direct airstrikes and advising Afghan forces on tactics.

But 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 early last month.

Meanwhile, another 11 prisoners were handed over to the United States and taken to the detention center on the U.S. base in Kandahar, said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

The new arrivals brought the number of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the Kandahar base to 200 and in U.S. custody overall to 221.

Twelve prisoners were 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, were being held aboard the U.S. Navy's USS Bataan, after being moved early in the week from the USS Peleliu, Lowell said.

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. Clarke said Wednesday morning that a couple hundred had arrived.

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

------Associated Press writer Matt Kelley contributed to this report.

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