Marines in combat gear leave Kandahar; Karzai says they're searching for Omar
Monday, December 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
Combat-ready U.S. Marines launched a mission Monday to capture Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, thought to be hiding in the remote mountains of central Afghanistan, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said.
``If he's there, he'll be arrested,'' Karzai told The Associated Press in Kabul. ``We are determined to see him arrested.''
Dozens of Marines boarded CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters at their base in Kandahar, 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.
A B-52 bomber and fighter jet also could be seen headed in the same direction.
Also Monday, a U.S. special forces soldier was shot in the leg when his unit came under fire on a road outside of 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.
Afghan officials think Omar may be in the Baghran area, a remote, mountainous region about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. A U.S. intelligence official said Monday that American officials also think Omar probably is there.
Pentagon officials confirmed a mission was under way but refused to comment further, saying to do so could endanger those involved. Officials at the Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., said they were unaware of such an operation.
Any move against Omar probably also would include U.S. special forces, which are operating with the anti-Taliban Afghan groups that would also join in the hunt. Special forces would help direct airstrikes and give the Afghans advice and supplies.
President Bush would not confirm the mission, but repeated that the U.S. military is intent on getting Omar and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
``We're going to get him. It's just a matter of when,'' Bush said as he stopped for lunch while vacationing near Crawford, Texas. ``Any time you get a person running, it means you're going to get him pretty soon. And the same with Mullah Omar. It's just a matter of time.''
U.S. forces have been searching for Omar since he apparently fled Kandahar before its surrender to Karzai and other anti-Taliban forces Dec. 7. Omar has close links to Baghran's tribal chief, Abdul Wahid, who was apparently involved in the negotiations that led to Kandahar's surrender.
Marines leaving for the mission carried full combat gear, including large backpacks, helmets, goggles and M-16 rifles. Their weapons also included 5.56mm light machine guns, grenades and 72mm anti-tank weapons _ which also can be used to destroy other vehicles and bunkers. Their commanders had maps and battle plans spread out on the ground.
The Sea King helicopters they boarded, distinctive for their dual rotors, have a range of about 180 miles and are the Marine Corps' main medium-lift troop transport helicopter.
Karzai did not provide any details on how many Afghans were involved in the operation or what their role might be.
Asked whether he thought Osama bin Laden might be with Omar, Karzai said: ``It is difficult to know. There have been so many rumors about bin Laden's whereabouts.''
U.S. officials say they think bin Laden was in the mountainous Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan at least until mid-December. In a new videotape, the terrorist leader implied he was speaking in early or mid-December.
North of the Tora Bora region near Jalalabad, the special forces unit involved in the shootout was on a road where bandits and Taliban supporters make travel dangerous. The unit came under fire at 12:30 p.m. EDT, fired back and called in a quick reaction force for backup, Klee said.
The unidentified gunmen had fled by the time a U.S. helicopter brought the reaction force, Klee said.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Afghanistan took custody of 30 more suspected Taliban or al-Qaida prisoners, bringing the total held to 180, said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Cynthia Colin.
Twenty-five more prisoners were taken to the base at Kandahar, bringing the total there to 164, Colin said. Another five joined the two being held at the air base in Bagram, north of Kabul.
U.S. military officials also disputed reports from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that at least 92 people were killed by U.S. bombing near the village of Niazi Qala in Paktia province.
The airstrike hit a compound used by Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, not a village, said Cmdr. Dave Culler, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
``If any innocents or civilians were killed in the attack, the cause would be the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders living alongside people who are not complicit with their crimes,'' Culler said Monday.
In other developments Monday:
_ More British troops arrived in Kabul after an agreement detailing the operation of an international peacekeeping force. A convoy carrying about 70 British soldiers rolled in to reinforce an initial deployment that has been patrolling the capital and providing security to the interim government.
_ A computer taken from a building used by bin Laden's al-Qaida in Afghanistan contains letters and memos about the organization's internal operations, including efforts to obtain chemical weapons, The Wall Street Journal reported. A looter said he got the desktop computer in Kabul after a November U.S. bombing raid killed several senior al-Qaida officials, said the Journal, which bought the machine for $1,100, and reported U.S. officials confirmed its authenticity.