Afghans say Taliban leader surrounded

Saturday, January 5, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan foreign minister said Mullah Mohammad Omar was surrounded by anti-Taliban forces near the central city of Baghran, as U.S. troops and warplanes on Friday went after al-Qaida fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

The American operations near the city of Khost brought the first death of a member of the U.S. military by enemy fire in the three-month-old Afghan campaign.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said the location of Omar -- once the Taliban's supreme leader and now the second most wanted fugitive after Osama bin Laden -- was not certain, though there had been indications he was in the Baghran area.

"We don't know where Omar is. If we knew where Omar was, we would probably take pretty direct action," Franks told journalists at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

He said Afghan officials in the southern city of Kandahar were negotiating with Taliban fighters near Baghran and that some had surrendered, handing over their weapons.

The Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah, said Omar was surrounded in the area, though he did not say if it was Afghan or American troops that had the Taliban leader penned in.

"If he is captured he will either be tried in Afghanistan or elsewhere," Abdullah, who goes by one name, said in the capital, Kabul. "That will be decided after we capture him."

Kandahar intelligence officials have said negotiations for Omar's surrender are under way with tribal leaders. But Kandahar's governor, Gul Agha, said Thursday his men were not negotiating with Omar. Instead, he said, they are continuing to search for him and to persuade tribal leaders to disarm.

Two Pakistani officials speaking on condition of anonymity said there was a possibility Omar could use negotiations as a cover as he tries to slip away. During the siege of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan last month, Afghan commanders said al-Qaida fighters used surrender negotiations to buy time to flee.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said Washington -- and the Afghan government -- would oppose any deal or pause in operations that would allow Omar to escape.

Also Friday, the United States has arranged for Pakistan to turn over to U.S. control the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who would be one of the highest ranking Taliban officials to fall into U.S. hands, according to a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan also has handed over the al-Qaida member who ran bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi has been taken to Kandahar for questioning, a U.S. official said.

On Friday in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. warplanes bombed for a second straight day an al-Qaida cave complex and compound at Zawar Kili, near Khost. "There was al-Qaida activity in and around this complex of sufficient size to warrant our need to go back in there," Franks said.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported that the bombardment Thursday near Khost killed 32 people. The report could not be confirmed independently.

About 1,000 al-Qaida fighters have taken refuge around Khost in Paktia province in groups of 50 to 100, Afghan Deputy Intelligence Minister Abdullah Tawheedi said Friday. "I think al-Qaida will be routed in one month," he said.

Franks said U.S. forces have searched 40 out of 48 identified terrorist training camps or bases in Afghanistan. In the Tora Bora region, U.S. troops have cleared seven of eight "large cave complexes" occupied by al-Qaida fighters until they were driven out last month.

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