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Afghanistan: U.S. Focuses Search For Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, And Taliban Officials

The battle for Kandahar, the last major Afghan city still under Taliban control, has reached what one American officer called "a culmination point." The United States has deployed about 1,000 marines to the southwest of the city and has been joined by troops from other coalition partner countries. The hunt for suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden also continues, with U.S. officials asserting yesterday that it is only a matter of time before the terrorist mastermind is either caught or killed.

Prague, 3 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and its allies in the international coalition against terrorism are stepping up their presence inside Afghanistan. The U.S. has recently worked to raise the number of marines at a base near the Taliban's last major stronghold in the southern city of Kandahar. The marines were joined there by officers from Australia, Great Britain, and Germany.

A French force started work at an airfield near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in preparation for the field's use by coalition forces. Italian and U.S. military personnel inspected an air base in Tajikistan to assess its potential for the campaign in Afghanistan. And reports on 2-3 December indicated that U.S. special forces are preparing to hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora network of caves outside the eastern city of Jalalabad.

A U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer, Major James Higgins, was quoted by several Western news agencies yesterday as saying the battle for the city of Kandahar was "reaching a culmination point." Higgins was speaking from the marine base, about 100 kilometers southwest of Kandahar. He said anti-Taliban forces were approaching the city from the north and southeast. Higgins added that the marines at their temporary Afghan base were well-positioned to add pressure from yet another quarter, should they be called upon to aid in the battle for Kandahar.

The new base, already the temporary home to more than 1,000 marines, was a hub of activity since 31 November, with additional troops being flown in and more attack helicopters arriving for possible combat missions. One combat mission has already used this base to attack a suspected Taliban convoy en route to Kandahar.

Waves of U.S. warplanes have continued to pound Kandahar. Inside the city, Taliban forces are said to outnumber opposition troops. Moreover, many of the Taliban troops are foreigners -- Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, and others -- who are unlikely to surrender. The Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has vowed to defend the city to the death. He is believed to be somewhere in or around Kandahar.

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that Taliban fighters in Kandahar have only two choices -- surrender or be killed. Rumsfeld has said, however, that capturing the leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist network is a priority for the U.S.

"Let there be no doubt, we would want all, each, every single senior Taliban leader," said Rumsfeld. "We would want Al-Qaeda people not to be set free, we would want them not released in other countries where they can continue to perpetrate terrorist acts, and we would do everything reasonable to see that we have access to those people."

However, Mullah Khaksar, the Taliban's former deputy interior minister, who stayed in Kabul when the militia pulled out in November, said it would be impossible to capture Mullah Omar alive: "[Mullah Omar] is going to fight the Americans until the end, he's very committed to that. He knows that even if he surrenders, he will be killed. Since he would be killed in America or in jail, then it would be better to be killed in fighting. And some people have promised him serious cooperation if he continues his fight against the United States."

The officers from Germany, Great Britain, and Australia who have joined the U.S. Marines south of Kandahar are said to be only the beginning of an infusion of troops from those countries.

Forty of an eventual force of 58 French marines arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif on 1 December to secure the airport as part of an effort to increase humanitarian shipments from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan. The French troops arrived via Uzbekistan.

Meanwhile, Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported today that about 20 planes and helicopters from the U.S. and its allies will soon be based at the Kulob airport in Tajikistan, not far from the Afghan border. An Italian military transport plane carrying a group of military experts and 15 U.S. Marines landed at the airport yesterday evening.

The most dangerous mission in Afghanistan for the U.S.-led coalition is taking shape near the eastern city of Jalalabad. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday the efforts to find Osama bin Laden are now focused on the areas around Kandahar and the mountainous region between Jalalabad and Kabul, centered around a mountain region called Tora Bora.

German news agency dpa reported today that U.S. special forces landed in Jalalabad to coordinate activities with local anti-Taliban commanders in the city. Their task is to comb through the extensive cave network around Tora Bora to find bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda terrorist group. U.S. warplanes have been pounding the area for many days in an attempt to destroy as much of the cavern network as possible. Civilian casualties were reported.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted the police chief of the eastern Nangarhar province, Hazrat Ali, as saying U.S. planes had heavily bombed the Tora Bora mountain area since last night, and that the bombing continued today. But only a cave-by-cave search by ground forces will guarantee that bin Laden and his allies are either destroyed or have fled from the area.