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Afghanistan: U.S.-Led Campaign Focuses On Capturing Fugitive Taliban Leader

U.S. warplanes have carried out their first air strikes in Afghanistan since 28 December, targeting a complex in eastern Afghanistan where activity by members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network was detected. At the same time, U.S.-led efforts to capture fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar are intensifying. Talks over Mullah Omar's fate are reportedly continuing between a Taliban commander and tribal elders in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Taliban commander Abdul Ahad says he is ready to hand over Mullah Omar and surrender, along with his force of up to 1,500 men, if the U.S. bombing campaign is halted.

Prague, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The net around fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar appears to be gradually tightening, and his fate may hinge on the outcome of talks between anti-Taliban leaders and remaining Taliban commanders in a remote Afghan province.

Attention in recent days has focused on the area around Baghran, in Helmand province, in the mountains northwest of Kandahar. Mullah Omar is believed to have sought refuge there, and local officials say they are negotiating for his surrender.

Interim Minister for Reconstruction Amin Farhang even told German television last night that he believed Mullah Omar had been captured: "I have heard that he [Mullah Mohammed Omar] has been captured. I know nothing more about it."

But that report was quickly laid to rest by the U.S. Defense Department, which said it had no such information. According to "The New York Times," talks are being complicated by the fact that negotiations involve several anti-Taliban groups competing for the surrender of Mullah Omar and other Taliban commanders reportedly being sheltered by local tribesmen. At stake are cars, weapons, and other spoils of war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged Washington does not have much control over the process, but the U.S. has ruled out halting its bombing campaign, as some Afghan commanders have demanded. Rumsfeld yesterday also said the United States would not approve of any negotiations that "would result in freeing of people who ought not to be freed," including those involved in terrorism or harboring terrorists.

Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that drawn-out negotiations could give Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters a chance to escape the region or even the country. The trail of Al-Qaeda leader and suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden seems to have gone cold in recent days.

U.S. planes have begun dropping leaflets throughout Afghanistan depicting bin Laden in possible disguises. One picture shows him in a jacket and tie with neatly trimmed hair and his trademark beard shaved to a pencil mustache. Bin Laden as a Westernized businessman would appear to be an unlikely disguise, but it is an indication that Washington is keen not to overlook any possibility -- no matter how far-fetched -- in its campaign to capture its most-wanted fugitive.

Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper reports that Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, the governor of the country's Northwest Frontier Province -- which borders Afghanistan -- warned local tribal leaders yesterday not to give shelter to any fleeing Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters. He said the government will take tough action against any tribesmen who go against the order.

Once again, U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday emphasized that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is far from complete, with many fugitives yet to be apprehended.

"Reports about 'mopping up' -- meaning sort of the end of the effort in Afghanistan -- notwithstanding, the war on terrorism is still in a relatively early phase," Rumsfeld said. "There's still a good deal to do in Afghanistan, and the Al-Qaeda network is global in scope -- it's not regional, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan."

Yesterday, after a week-long pause, U.S. warplanes bombed a compound in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border believed to contain an Al-Qaeda base camp, training facilities, and caves. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said the air strikes continued today, but the report has not been independently confirmed.

The area, at Zhawar, some 30 kilometers south of the provincial capital of Khost, was originally a base for mujahedin fighting Soviet troops during the 1980s. In 1998, the United States hit the area with cruise missiles in an attempt to destroy suspected training camps set up by bin Laden. The U.S. military said renewed activity at the site had prompted the raid.

In humanitarian news, Afghanistan's ambassador to Dushanbe, Said Ibrahim Khikmat, said today that some 10,000 Afghan refugees who had been living in tents along the Afghan-Tajik border have returned to their homes in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province. Khikmat said about 4,000 refugees remain on islands in the Pyandzh River, which marks the border between the two countries,

Some 14,000 Afghans took refuge on the islands in the river in the autumn of 2000 after the ruling Taliban burned their homes during an offensive against the opposition Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, the United States has announced that interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai will visit the United States in February. Karzai will be the first Afghan leader to come to the United States in nearly 40 years, and his trip will include a high-profile meeting with President George W. Bush in which reconstruction of the war-torn country will be discussed.

AP quotes a senior official in the Bush administration as saying Washington intends to contribute $400 million toward an expected $2-billion bill for the first year of long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan. Contributions from other countries will be solicited at an international conference planned in Tokyo on 21-22 January.