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Afghanistan: Search Heats Up For Mullah Omar Amid New Peacekeeping Presence

U.S. and Northern Alliance forces are reportedly preparing for a new campaign to try to capture Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in the south of the country.

Prague, 2 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A final push to try to flush out fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar from his suspected mountain hideout could soon be in the offing as preparations for the deployment of an international security force gather momentum in Afghanistan.

An expeditionary force of about 200 U.S. Marines returned to their base at Kandahar airport today after a one-day reconnaissance mission in neighboring Helmand province, where Mullah Omar is thought to be hiding. Major Brad Lowell, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said the mission was the latest in about a dozen intelligence-gathering forays the marines have undertaken in the past several weeks.

Mullah Omar was widely reported as having fled to the village of Baghran in northern Helmand province after Kandahar fell to Northern Alliance forces on 7 December. Lowell said the marines, accompanied by anti-Taliban Afghan forces, searched a compound of buildings in the area for information that could lead to Mullah Omar and other Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.

He also said the troops had not come under hostile fire, and he gave no details of what information had been obtained. But Haji Gulalai, the anti-Taliban intelligence chief in Kandahar, said negotiations on Mullah Omar's possible surrender are now underway. He said a raid to capture him could be launched if the talks fail.

At the same time today, an advance party of 25 officers from 12 nations preparing for the arrival of multinational peacekeepers arrived in Kabul. Over the coming weeks, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is expected to grow to between 3,000 and 5,000 troops.

For the first three months, it will be led by Britain. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced today that it expects to take command of the UN-mandated force after that.

Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, who was installed as head of a UN-backed power-sharing government on 22 December, welcomed the arrival of the force, which he said should fan out around the country.

So far, the ISAF has been restricted to operating in and around Kabul, but in an interview with "The New York Times," Karzai said there have been requests for the peacekeepers from all over Afghanistan.

The first French soldiers in the force arrived at Bagram air base north of the capital, Kabul, today. The contingent, which will be based in Kabul, comprised mainly engineers who have come to prepare the way for the main deployment. Spokesman Colonel Denis Reumaux told AFP that 21 French troops are expected to arrive in two batches from neighboring Tajikistan.

Later in the day, they will travel the 50 kilometers to Kabul, where they will initially be based at the old Afghan army sports club near the U.S. Embassy complex.

A second batch is to begin arriving from 15 January, and by the end of the month, the total French deployment will comprise 550 personnel, including ground troops, helicopter pilots, and staff attached to a mobile hospital.

Despite the continued attention being given to security and military affairs, the new deputy foreign minister in the interim Afghan government says emphasis will also be placed on diplomacy as the country attempts to retake its place in the international community.

Speaking to RFE/RL yesterday in Kabul, Abdul Rahim Sharzai said his ministry faces a lot of hard work ahead: "Afghanistan has been completely turned to ruins during the past 23 years, and destruction has occurred from every perspective -- especially in the field of culture, as well as in political affairs, both internal and external. During the short six-month interim period before us, we will endeavor to lay the groundwork so that Afghanistan can once again rebuild its policies -- both foreign and domestic -- rebuild ties with its neighbors and the region and the rest of the world, including the Islamic countries."

Meanwhile, the interim Afghan government confirmed today that the intelligence chief of Afghanistan's deposed Taliban militia died in an American bombardment in the eastern part of the country in late December.

Abdullah Tawheedi, a deputy intelligence minister for the interim government, confirmed the death of Qari Ahmadullah, who was among 25 people killed on 27 December in Naka, in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika, when U.S. planes attacked a house where he was staying with his associates.

Witnesses at the Pakistani border town of Miran Shah told the Afghan Islamic Press that Ahmadullah's brother and two close associates were also among those killed. It said the strike hit a house belonging to Maulvi Taahaa, a former Taliban commander in Paktika province. Taahaa's fate was unclear.

The U.S.-led coalition had identified Ahmadullah as one of the Taliban leaders it was trying to capture. The United States is currently detaining 189 Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at its Kandahar base. An additional 12 prisoners are being held by the United States at the Bagram air base north of Kabul, and U.S. forces have one prisoner in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)