Official says Taliban's fugitive supreme leader believed to be in southern Afghanistan

Monday, December 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ Mohammed Omar, the mullah who led the Taliban to its downfall, is believed to be holed up with hundreds of fighters in south-central Afghanistan, an intelligence officer for Kandahar's new governor said Monday.

Like thousands of other Taliban, Omar fled the city of the movement's birth as the militia collapsed. Unlike most of them, the United States is determined to see him captured _ and plans to offer a $10 million reward.

``We're simply looking for him and we're going to keep looking for him as long as it takes,'' the U.S. war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, said Friday.

So far, he's proven hard to find.

Omar had instructed his followers to defend Kandahar to the death. But as opposition forces closed in this month, the Taliban agreed to surrender _ then bolted in the dead of night.

When tribal forces entered the city on Dec. 7, Omar was nowhere to be found. An old friend, fellow Taliban founder Mohammed Khaqzar, said the Taliban leader had fled days earlier.

Monday's announcement by Haji Gulalai, the intelligence chief for Kandahar governor Gul Agha, was the first news on Omar's whereabouts in weeks. Franks said Friday that there were no good leads on his location.

Gulalai said ``intelligence information'' indicated Omar and several hundred fighters were hiding near Baghran. The town 100 miles northwest of Kandahar is at the foot of a vast mountain range filled with caves and tunnels, where a fugitive could disappear for months or even years.

It dwarfs the Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan, where tribal fighters and U.S. special forces needed nine weeks to dislodge al-Qaida guerrillas and conquer their mountain warrens _ still finding no sign of the man most wanted by the United States, Osama bin Laden.

Spokesmen for Agha previously said they knew the ``general area'' where Omar was, but would not identify it for what they called security reasons.

Almost no photographs exist of Omar, who lost an eye to a shrapnel wound while fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He received few visitors during Taliban rule, and spent his time studying the Quran at his Kandahar base.

As the Taliban took control of most of the country in 1996, Omar declared himself ``Amir-ul-Mohmineen'' _ king of the Muslim faithful _ and soon afterward his religious edicts were accepted by Taliban officials in Kabul as law.

Omar also began paying increasing attention to bin Laden, calling the Saudi exile a ``guest'' and refusing to hand him over to the United States.

Bin Laden and his al-Qaida network helped push Omar further toward an extreme interpretation of Islam, making the Taliban ever more repressive.

When the United States blamed bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it declared war on Omar as well, saying the Taliban had to be eliminated for harboring terrorists.

Amid the rout of the Taliban, there were plenty of theories about where Omar had gone, but no hard evidence. Some said he was regrouping in the hills around Kandahar, some said he was heading to rugged Zabul province to the northeast. Others maintained he was still in Kandahar, hidden by allies in the city of 100,000 people.

Hamid Karzai, who is set to become Afghanistan's interim leader in Kabul on Saturday and who briefly occupied Omar's garish residence in Kandahar, at first offered to guarantee Omar's safety if he would renounce terrorism.

That sparked a sharp rebuke from U.S. officials, who warned U.S. support would be cut off if Karzai let Omar go free. Karzai, in a quick about-face, vowed the following day to bring Omar to ``international justice.''

As Omar's militia collapsed across Afghanistan, many Taliban fighters simply slipped back into the civilian population _ often with the blessing of anti-Taliban commanders as long as they surrendered their weapons.

In some instances, such as the fall of the northern city of Kunduz to the northern alliance, anti-Taliban fighters beat or killed some of the defeated troops.

U.S. officials have made clear they are not looking for Afghans who were Taliban rank-and-file, but are focusing on senior Taliban leaders and foreigners who came to Afghanistan to fight for al-Qaida.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said $10 million in reward money would be offered soon for ``a discrete number'' of senior Taliban officials, including Omar.