- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

From combined dispatches
KABUL, Afghanistan Authorities are negotiating the surrender of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is being protected by as many as 1,500 die-hard supporters near a town some 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, an Afghan official said yesterday.
A massive military operation to kill or capture the mullah, backed by U.S. Marines, will go forward if no deal has been struck in three to four days, said Haji Gulalai, the chief of intelligence for Kandahar province.
Mr. Gulalai said his forces were closing in on Mullah Omar near the town of Baghran in southern Afghanistan and that the "cleanup" operation would involve 4,000 to 5,000 Afghan soldiers backed by U.S. Marines.
The assault had been scheduled to begin early yesterday, but tribal leaders urged a postponement to allow negotiations over Mullah Omar's future, as well as the surrender of illegal weapons.
"Tribal elders from Helmand province requested us not to launch this operation and have asked us to solve the issue of collecting arms and also the issue of Mullah Omar through talks and negotiations," Mr. Gulalai told Agence France-Presse.
"These 4,000 to 5,000 mujahideen are based outside Kandahar city in military bases. If we are weak or need help or assistance, international and allied forces will help us," he said.
CNN said "a couple of hundred" Marines, working alongside anti-Taliban forces, were involved in an operation to gather intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Helmand.
However, the U.S. Central Command, which is running the military campaign, said the Marines conducting the sweeps yesterday were not participating in the hunt for Mullah Omar.
"That's not their mission," said Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the Tampa, Fla.-based command. The precise location of the latest Marine sweeps, which began Monday, was not disclosed.
However, interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, confirming the hunt for Mullah Omar, said the Marines were in fact taking part in the hunt for the Taliban leader.
"If he's there, he'll be arrested," Mr. Karzai told the Associated Press in Kabul on Monday night. "We are determined to see him arrested."
An unspecified number of Marines was hunting for clues at a spot thought to have been occupied by Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. Col. Thomas said they were "looking for whatever they may have left behind," adding that the Marines were in full combat gear.
In southern Afghanistan, dozens of U.S. forces in typical Marine outfits were seen boarding CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters at their base in Kandahar, Mullah Omar's hometown and the Taliban's final stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
The helicopters, which can hold up to 25 soldiers each, took off toward the northwest just before sunset yesterday. A B-52 bomber and fighter jet also could be seen headed in the same direction.
On Monday, a senior Defense Department official said there had been a "fairly consistent body of intelligence" suggesting Mullah Omar was near Baghran.
Mullah Omar is second only to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on Washington's list of most-wanted men.
On Monday, a U.S. Special Forces soldier was shot in the leg when his unit came under fire on a road outside the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, officials said. The wound was not life-threatening and the unit was rescued, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Klee, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
The Special Forces unit involved in the shootout was on a road north of the Tora Bora region near Jalalabad, where bandits and Taliban supporters make travel dangerous. The unit came under fire, fired back and called in a quick reaction force for backup, Lt. Klee said. The unidentified gunmen fled.
Pakistan yesterday turned over to U.S. forces 25 suspected al Qaeda fighters who fled the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan. They were taken to the Kandahar base, bringing the total number of detainees there to 189.
U.S. military officials disputed reports from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that at least 92 persons were killed by U.S. bombing near the village of Niazi Qala in Paktia province. The strike hit a compound used by Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, said Cmdr. Dave Culler, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.


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