- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan American and Afghan forces renewed their search for Mullah Mohammed Omar yesterday after the Taliban's supreme leader reportedly used a motorcycle to escape from troops surrounding his mountain hideout in southern Afghanistan.
Haji Gulalai, the head of intelligence in Kandahar, said that Mullah Omar had fled on a motorcycle from a village near Baghran in Helmand province, where he was said to have been cornered for more than two days. Four supporters were reported to have fled with him.
Afghanistan's foreign ministry also confirmed the escape, saying that Mullah Omar's location no longer was known and that negotiations for his surrender had failed.
"The reports that we have are that Mullah Omar has fled Baghran and has gone to another hide-out," said Omar Samad, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "He may have fled in any direction. We are not talking about a small area; we are talking about a large area with a lot of possibilities for hiding.
"Up to this morning all indications were that he was in the region of Baghran," Mr. Samad said. "He was surrounded, but this is Afghanistan, and surrounded does not mean that every inch, every meter, is controlled. Anything can happen.
"Mullah Omar is also not traveling alone," the spokesman said. "He is with a band of armed men, and they can fight their way out of being surrounded."
Mullah Omar's disappearance bears an unfortunate resemblance to the unsuccessful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, who was reported to have been surrounded in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Heavy bombing of the area, combined with ground searches, over three weeks failed to result in his capture; there have been no confirmed sightings of him since then.
Reports that bin Laden might have been spotted by an American drone spyplane last week near Khost in eastern Afghanistan remain unconfirmed, although an intensive U.S. bombardment in which more than 100 2,000-pound bombs were dropped indicated that the Pentagon suspected that the sighting was genuine.
Mr. Samad said that both the Afghan government and the allied forces hunting him remained sure of success. "He is not very far from Baghran, and we are very confident that we will catch him. So long as he is in Afghanistan, we feel that he will be captured. It may take a day or a week or months, but he will run out of gas and we will capture him."
Mullah Omar has been in hiding since Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the Taliban's spiritual home, fell to anti-Taliban forces last month. Immediately afterward, American and Afghan sources claimed that his location was known but were later forced to admit that he had escaped.
The latest attempt to capture Mullah Omar began last week, when U.S. Marines and Special Forces moved with Afghan anti-Taliban forces to Baghran, a mountainous region north of Kandahar. House-to-house searches failed to find him; negotiations for his surrender also occurred, with a similar lack of success. The continuing search for Mullah Omar went on as the new government in Afghanistan warned that the Taliban was "regrouping" and had set up new headquarters in Uruzgan province, which is only a few miles east of Baghran.
Senior officials, who conveyed their fears to Gen. John McColl, the British head of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul, at a meeting last week, said that it was "only a matter of time" before the Taliban tried to provoke fresh conflict.
At a meeting last week with Gen. Mohammad Fahim, Afghanistan's defense minister, Gen. McColl also was warned that peace in Afghanistan remained "vulnerable" and that an extension of the peacekeeping effort, which is restricted to Kabul, would be needed, with international troops deployed in all Afghan cities.
The United Nations added to the concern yesterday, when it said that Taliban and Arab fighters were active in Kandahar and that gun and rocket fire was rife in the city.
Amrullah Khan, a senior Foreign Ministry official working for Gen. Fahim, said: "Mullah Omar is alive, his governor of Kandahar is alive, many other senior Taliban are alive, and it is just a matter of time before they find ways of linking and trying to do something together."
A spokesman for Gen. McColl insisted, however, that no troops would be deployed outside Kabul unless the United Nations' instructions were altered. "Our mandate is to operate in Kabul," he said.
The arrival of the 4,500-member international force continues to proceed slowly. About 70 more British troops landed at Baghran air base close to Kabul last night, adding to the 300 troops deployed. More British Parachute Regiment soldiers are due this week, but the bulk of the international force is unlikely to arrive until late this month.


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