Rumsfeld says millions in U.S. reward money may motivate Afghans to find, turn over bin Laden

Monday, November 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon hopes Afghans motivated by the Taliban's collapse and millions in U.S. reward money will find Osama bin Laden's hide-out so U.S. troops won't have to hunt cave-to-cave for him, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday.

The U.S. approach, at least for now, is to continue bombing suspected hide-outs while leaving it to local people to search on the ground, Rumsfeld said. He suggested a $25 million reward _ plus extra bounty offered by the CIA _ may prompt Afghans to ``begin crawling through those tunnels and caves.''

If the job eventually falls to the U.S. military, it will require different kinds of forces than the special operations troops now in Afghanistan, the defense secretary said. He did not elaborate, but other officials have said the task might fall to an infantry unit like the Army's 10th Mountain Division.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference on the 44th day of U.S. bombing, Rumsfeld also said the United States would not let Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar escape from Kandahar, his southern stronghold now under siege, even if opposition groups negotiated a deal with him for free passage.

Rumsfeld was asked about reports that Omar is trying to negotiate a handover of power in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban militia that has harbored bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

``If the thrust of that question is would we knowingly allow him to get out of Kandahar, the answer is, 'No, we would not,''' he said.

Rumsfeld said U.S. special forces in Afghanistan _ now numbering several hundred _ had not yet pursued any Taliban or al-Qaida leaders into neighboring Pakistan. ``If one of those folk that we particularly wanted was known'' to be crossing a border ``we might have an early intensive consultation with the neighbors,'' he added.

Likewise, in the other major pocket of Taliban and al-Qaida resistance, the northern city of Kunduz, the United States is trying to avoid any dealmaking that would allow enemy forces to escape, he said.

``The idea of their getting out of the country and going off to make their mischief somewhere else is not a happy prospect,'' he said. ``So my hope is that they will either be killed or taken prisoner.''

Senior administration officials in recent days have said bin Laden's room for maneuver in Afghanistan is narrowing as opposition groups gain ground, but Rumsfeld on Monday stressed that the search is far from over.

``As enemy leaders become fewer and fewer, that does not necessarily mean that the task will become easier,'' he said. ``People can hide in caves for long periods, and this will take time.''

He denied reports that U.S. intelligence has defined a narrow search area for bin Laden.

``To try and think that we have them contained in some sort of a small area I think would be a misunderstanding of the difficulty of the task,'' he said.

To spread word of the $25 million reward for getting bin Laden and a ``select few'' of his lieutenants, the U.S. military is dropping local-language leaflets ``like snowflakes in December in Chicago,'' Rumsfeld said.

Intelligence officials believe he is in rural parts of Afghanistan, not under northern alliance control _ meaning either southeast of Kandahar or around cities like Jalalabad in the east or Kunduz in the north.

In the past, bin Laden has traveled with at least a small, armed security force, and he's believed to now use people as couriers, because he knows of the U.S. ability to eavesdrop on his phone conversations.

Although bin laden might try to flee Afghanistan, many believe he is more likely to go underground. During the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, he spent millions from his personal fortune to create a network of underground hide-outs and fortified bunkers out of an ancient network of water trenches.

Rumsfeld praised the work of U.S. special operations troops who have been performing a variety of dangerous tasks in Afghanistan, including equipping anti-Taliban forces, identifying targets for U.S. warplanes, firing on enemy vehicles and searching for signs of bin Laden and his network.

Rumsfeld said he would travel to Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the Army Special Operations Command, on Wednesday to receive a briefing on special operations and talk with troops.