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Afghanistan: U.S. Pursues Al-Qaeda, Diplomatic Ties

Tora Bora, Kabul; 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United States forces are continuing the hunt for Osama bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda network following the apparent destruction of Al-Qaeda's stronghold in the Tora Bora mountain region of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda's defenses in Tora Bora were reported to have collapsed yesterday amid heavy American air strikes and joint ground attacks by Afghan fighters and U.S. troops. Reports said American forces and their allies were pursuing hundreds of Al-Qaeda fighters believed to be fleeing the area.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Al-Qaeda was on the way to being destroyed in Afghanistan, and that the United States was ending the use of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorists. Powell also vowed that the U.S. would continue to target Al-Qaeda terrorist cells wherever they exist around the world. He gave no further details.

A former Taliban official meanwhile conceded that Afghanistan's orthodox Islamic militia no longer exists. "We want to tell the people that the Taliban system is now no more," the Afghan Islamic Press quoted Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim, the group's former finance minister, as saying yesterday. Mutasim said the Taliban, whose rule collapsed in recent weeks amid relentless U.S. bombing and attacks by anti-Taliban forces, won't oppose Afghanistan's new U.N.-sponsored government if it has a strong Islamic flavor.

Afghanistan's new interim leader, Hamid Karzai, has left Kabul for Rome to hold talks with the country's exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. Karzai will head the 30-member provisional cabinet that is to assume power on 22 December. He held talks yesterday at the Kabul air field with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Afghanistan's former monarch, who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973, sent the main delegation to the Bonn inter-Afghan talks in early December, along with Northern Alliance representatives. The Alliance, a loosely composed group of different ethnic minorities, swept into Kabul on 13 November after the Taliban fled. It subsequently agreed to share power with Afghanistan's majority Pashtun tribe in a United Nations-brokered deal.

The U.S. today re-established a diplomatic presence in the Afghan capital, Kabul, for the first time since its diplomats fled the city shortly before the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, Reuters reported. On a cold and drizzly afternoon, two U.S. Marines hoisted the same Stars and Stripes on the same flagpole from which it was taken down on 30 January 1989. The ceremony was attended by U.S. special envoy James Dobbins.

The ceremony in the 14-acre compound took place five days before the installation of a new post-Taliban interim government, expected on 22 December. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington would operate a liaison office headed by a charge d'affaires, Jeanine Jackson, pending the establishment of full diplomatic relations.