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Afghanistan: New Government Takes Shape, But Bin Laden Still At Large

  • Kathleen Moore

Afghanistan's new government has begun the daunting task of rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war. The country's new leader, Hamid Karzai, spoke of his happiness at seeing "the sun rising again on our land." He also said terrorism has been largely beaten in Afghanistan. But the whereabouts of terror suspect Osama bin Laden remain unknown. And excerpts from bin Laden's latest videotaped message, aired yesterday on television, have done little to clear up the mystery.

Prague, 27 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's new leader, Hamid Karzai, met his cabinet yesterday for the second time since taking office on 22 December.

One of the top items on the agenda was the precarious security situation in the country.

Some 80 British Royal Marines, the first troops in a UN-approved multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), arrived in Kabul in the days surrounding the inauguration.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said yesterday he expects final agreement in the next few days on the exact duties of the ISAF, which is set to be 3,000-strong once it is fully deployed.

Earlier, there had been signs of a rift in the new cabinet over the force's size and mandate during the six months it is to spend in Afghanistan.

On 24 December, Karzai moved to defuse another potential source of conflict when he brought Uzbek military leader Abdul Rashid Dostum into the government.

Dostum, reportedly angry that the defense, interior, and foreign ministries went to his Tajik rivals within the Northern Alliance, was appointed deputy defense minister.

On taking office, Karzai said his country had been transformed from a land of prosperity into one of disorder and terrorism.

In an interview with AP yesterday, he said terrorists had largely been defeated in his country, though the fighting is not yet over and air strikes are still needed.

In his first press conference since his inauguration as foreign minister, Abdullah yesterday said some elements of bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network are still holding out: "In some areas in the southern part of Afghanistan, in Paktia, we believe that there are still some pockets of Al-Qaeda. In southern Afghanistan, in some parts, there are smaller pockets, but I cannot be specific about the locations -- I mean in the areas around Kandahar as well."

In another development, eight wounded Al-Qaeda members holed up in a Kandahar hospital were told to surrender or be killed.

The fighters locked themselves into the ward two days ago. But hospital security head Ismail Khan said today that the standoff cannot go on much longer: "Our last choice will be to [kill] them. First, we are sending mullahs and elders to talk to them peacefully, and if they don't agree, then we will decide."

U.S. helicopters were today patrolling the Kandahar area in search of other Al-Qaeda fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden. U.S special forces and their allies continued to comb caves in the Tora Bora region, where bin Laden was last believed to be located.

But there is still no sign of bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the 11 September attacks on the U.S.

The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Kenton Keith, said on 24 December that bin Laden could have been killed during the heavy air assault on Tora Bora. Other possibilities are that he is still hiding out in the area, or has fled to Pakistan or another country.

Yesterday, bin Laden returned to the world's television screens when Qatar-based station Al Jazeera aired excerpts of his latest videotaped message.

In a now-familiar format, bin Laden appears in combat fatigues, flanked by a submachine gun and talking directly to the camera. He appears to make reference to both the 11 September attacks on the U.S. and the 7 October start of the American military campaign in Afghanistan.

He says, "Three months after the blessed attack against the international infidels and its leaders, the United States, and two months after the beginning of the vicious aggression against Islam, we would like to talk about some of the implications of those incidents."

He said terrorism against America was aimed at forcing the U.S. to stop its support for Israel.

The U.S quickly dismissed the tape. Bush administration spokesman Scott McClellan said it is "nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda" heard earlier.

And British Deputy Foreign Minister Peter Hain said it provided more proof of bin Laden's guilt.

But however fascinating the contents of the video, it sheds little light on bin Laden's whereabouts -- or even whether he is still alive.

Bin Laden's apparent reference to 11 September suggests the tape was recorded in early December -- around the time U.S. warplanes began their intensive bombardment of Tora Bora.

The videotape also came amid speculation that bin Laden might be linked to an apparent 22 December mid-air bombing attempt. Richard Reid, a British citizen, was arrested after allegedly trying to set off explosives in his shoes while aboard a flight from Paris to Miami.

U.S. television networks quoted unnamed U.S. and European officials as saying prisoners in Afghanistan claimed Reid had attended bin Laden's terrorist training camps.

But neither the White House nor other U.S. authorities have spoken officially on the alleged would-be suicide bombing.

Reid -- who also uses two other names -- has been charged with intimidation and interfering with a flight crew, and is to make his second U.S. court appearance tomorrow.

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