Rumsfeld rules out allowing Omar to remain free in Afghanistan, but says he might not see US justice

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

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States will not tolerate any arrangement that allowed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to remain free and ``live in dignity'' in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said amid reports Omar was ready to surrender his stronghold.

Rumsfeld was reluctant to rule out the possibility Omar might not be handed over to American authorities. Whatever the arrangement, Rumsfeld said it must be consistent with the U.S. goals of eliminating the al-Qaida organization and preventing Afghanistan from again become a haven for terrorists.

The United States has made clear to opposition leaders its ``very strong view'' that Taliban leaders and al-Qaida terrorists must be stopped, the secretary said when asked about an emerging deal between Omar and opposition forces besieging Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

``If you're asking, would an arrangement with Omar, where he could, quote, `live in dignity' in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is no,'' Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference on the 61st day of the U.S.-led military campaign.

Rumsfeld was asked whether there was any acceptable outcome other than bringing Omar and Osama bin Laden to U.S. justice. He said he could not think of one, then added, ``But I would not rule it out.''

He said repeatedly that he does not believe the Afghan opposition groups will strike a deal that conflicts with U.S. interests, although he had no information to confirm that any deal had been concluded. The opposition groups know precisely what President Bush is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, he said.

``Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done with respect to the senior (al-Qaida and Taliban) people in that situation that was inconsistent with'' Bush's goals, he added.

At the White House, press secretary Ari Fleischer refused to say what form of justice for Omar was acceptable.

``Whatever form justice takes is a form that will meet with the satisfaction of the president,'' he said, adding it was not clear what the Taliban leaders intended to do in Kandahar.

Rumsfeld said the final disposition of al-Qaida and Taliban members would depend on circumstances, but that in any case the United States has too few troops on the ground in Afghanistan to control the outcome directly. There are about 1,500 Marines at a base southwest of Kandahar and several hundred Army and Air Force special operations troops spread around the country.

Rank-and-file Afghan Taliban fighters ``very likely are going to drift back into the community,'' he said, suggesting this was inevitable. Senior Taliban figures, ``you're going to have to keep your eyes on, and how that would be done I don't know,'' he added. At another point, Rumsfeld said captured senior Taliban officials might be ``impounded'' by what are now the opposition forces.

``With respect to al-Qaida of all levels, you don't want them milling around the country and you don't want them leaving the country because they're just going to go out and kill people in some other country, so they need to be stopped,'' Rumsfeld said.

Even if Kandahar falls, the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will continue, focusing on the mountainous east where bin Laden and several thousand al-Qaida fighters may be holed up, Rumsfeld said.

He also noted that there are still ``pockets of resistance'' to be extinguished elsewhere.

``It would be premature to suggest that once Kandahar surrenders that, therefore, we kind of relax and say, `Well, that takes care of that,' because it doesn't,'' he said.