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Afghanistan: Fighting Subsides, But Searching Intensifies

U.S. bombing in Afghanistan has subsided and emphasis has shifted to searching for Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. But both the fighting and the search remain open-ended. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that small groups of Taliban supporters continue to resist surrender and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's Mullah Mohammad Omar continue to elude capture.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pentagon spokesman John Stufflebeem, a Navy rear admiral, says that looking for suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan is like searching for fleas on a dog. While searchers scratch for one flea a host of others scurries away.

That summarizes well the search by U.S. forces, aided by Afghan anti-Taliban fighters, for the leader of the terrorist Al-Qaeda network and his ally, Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar. A number of lesser figures appear to have been captured but the whereabouts and condition of the two leaders evidently remains unknown.

U.S. bombing in Afghanistan has subsided and extended combat between organized units of Taliban warriors and opposition forces is over. But, as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday, the killing probably is not.

"There are still a lot of Taliban in the country and they're still armed, and it is going to take time and energy and effort and people will be killed in the process of trying to find them and capture them or have them surrender."

U.S. Marines in Kandahar said today that hostile forces may have fired yesterday at two U.S. transport planes. The planes saw flashes on the ground and took evasive action. The marines said this would have been the first time their aircraft had come under fire since the marines set up a base in southern Afghanistan about three weeks ago.

There were reports that the flashes may have come from Stinger shoulder-fired missiles of the type that the United States provided to anti-Soviet Afghan fighters in the 1980s. The Pentagon said later that these reports lacked foundation.

The detritus of war now stands as a severe threat to U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. "The New York Times" reports that 400 specialists are to resume mine-clearing operations in northern Afghanistan tomorrow. The newspaper says hidden explosives in the soil and roads make the area among the world's most heavily mined.

Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters continued today to flush out holdouts from the caves of the Tora Bora mountain complex in eastern Afghanistan, the last major stronghold of bin Laden's collapsed forces.

U.S. warplanes suspended bombing raids over the Tora Bora battleground yesterday at the request of local troops who were searching for fleeing Al-Qaeda members. Pockets of resistance reportedly remain in the area. U.S. Special Forces also are on the ground searching for bin Laden.

U.S. President George W. Bush expressed both frustration and determination in describing the search for bin Laden.

"We get all kinds of reports that he is in a cave, that he is not in a cave, that he has escaped, that he hasn't escaped. There's all kinds of speculation, but when the dust clears, we'll find out where he is and he will be brought to justice."

Bush said also that Pakistan is assisting in the search.

"Well, the Pakistanis will help us and they are helping us look for not only Osama bin Laden but for all the Al-Qaeda murderers and killers. They will be brought to justice, and it is just a matter of time as far as I'm concerned."

Anti-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan reportedly were preparing today to attack a mountain base where Mullah Omar may be hiding. Gul Agha, Kandahar's new governor, said he has dispatched search parties. He also said his forces have arrested almost 80 fighters belonging to Al-Qaeda.

Hajji Gullalai, newly appointed director of intelligence for four provinces in southern Afghanistan, says Omar's hideout is near his former headquarters in Kandahar. Gullalai said Omar was accompanied in his flight from Kandahar by a convoy of at least 400 soldiers.

Omar's escape from Kandahar while it was surrounded by opposition forces has led some to question whether local anti-Taliban forces allowed the escape. Local troops say Omar remained in Kandahar until its surrender and then escaped, possibly with the help of a local warlord.

Meanwhile, U.S.-backed Afghan forces continue to take hundreds of prisoners as Taliban fighters scatter. U.S. forces hold a few prisoners and have postponed receiving others while detention installations are prepared.

Pakistan has deployed troops along its border with Afghanistan to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda members from crossing. One news report says U.S. Special Forces are in Pakistan to coordinate a hunt for fleeing Al-Qaeda fighters. The report says agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency are at Pakistan detention centers interrogating nearly 100 fugitives who have already been arrested.