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U.S. says senior Taliban leaders captured

A Northern Alliance tank stands near the open air market in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.  

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A group of senior Taliban officials was captured by opposition forces in Afghanistan, CNN has learned, in what the United States hopes will lead to a breakthrough in the search for Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar and suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

U.S. officials said the capture occurred Wednesday, although they did not say where in the country it happened or who exactly was captured.

Earlier Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States would make no deals with the Taliban for handovers of their leaders and will not negotiate with the enemy.

"Would we be delighted to receive a senior al Qaeda and Taliban leadership through some process where they were offered up without condition? Yes," he said.

The latest developments came as the Taliban's grip on power seemed to be weakening by the hour on Thursday.

U.S. officials told CNN that pro-Taliban fighters are now confined to three places in Afghanistan: Kandahar, Konduz, and the city of Baghlan.

In Konduz, Taliban forces were digging in to defend their last stronghold in northern Afghanistan. CNN's Ben Wedeman reported Northern Alliance troops were heading west toward the city. If the Alliance captures Konduz, it would open up land routes for aid and supplies from Tajikistan.

The status of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, was still in doubt. Sources in Afghanistan reported the city was quiet and in Taliban control, even as U.S. sources in Washington said there was heavy fighting and the city's airport had fallen to the opposition. Afghan opposition leader Hamad Karzai told CNN that two towns just north of Kandahar had fallen to anti-Taliban forces.

In eastern Afghanistan, Northern Alliance commanders said they had taken control of Jalalabad, but CNN's Tania Mehanna reported Thursday from the city that it appears to be under control of the faction led by Pashtun leader Yunus Khalis. She said Taliban fighters apparently handed the city over to Khalis when they left, and she saw no Northern Alliance fighters in the city.

U.S. officials say a group of senior Taliban leaders were captured Wednesday by opposition forces in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence is actively seeking information on the whereabouts of Taliban Leader Mullah Omar, the officials said.

Meanwhile, eight Western aid workers held in Afghanistan for three months enjoyed their first taste of freedom.

The workers, who had been held by the Taliban on charges of promoting Christianity, were flown to Islamabad, Pakistan, on U.S. Special Forces helicopters early Thursday. Local leaders, who found the aid workers in a Ghazni prison abandoned by the Taliban, contacted the International Red Cross, which contacted the U.S., German and Australian governments. (Full story)

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Eight Western aid workers held captive by the Taliban for three months were airlifted to safety by the U.S. military. CNN's Jeff Levine reports (November 15)

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Taliban and Northern Alliance troops are battling near the town of Konduz. CNN's Satinder Bindra reports from the front lines (November 15)

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Latest developments

• Pentagon officials now say they believe some al Qaeda and Taliban leaders were killed in U.S. airstrikes this week. A Pentagon spokeswoman said she would not characterize them as "senior" leaders. The strikes targeted buildings in Kabul and Kandahar that had been used as headquarters by al Qaeda. (Full story)

• Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge confirmed Thursday that nuclear weapons-related documents were found in an al Qaeda safehouse in Afghanistan. While downplaying the significance of the documents, Ridge said the discovery underscores the idea that the United States has to be prepared for a variety of threats from terrorists. (Full story)

• The White House will launch a campaign Friday to highlight both the Taliban's "brutal degradation" of women and how the Taliban trafficks in drugs to finance terrorism. (Full story)

• Key senators and House members reached a compromise on airport security legislation Thursday, after meeting behind closed doors. Negotiators said an "outline of an agreement" was drawn up. (Full story)

• The White House on Thursday will endorse a $3.25 billion bill to beef up the nation's ability to respond to and detect biological and chemical weapons attacks, senior administration and congressional sources tell CNN. (Full story)

• U.S. investigators believe that a man being sought by German authorities in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks was the intended 20th hijacker, sources told CNN Thursday. The man, Ramzi Binalshibh, also known as Ramzi Omar, is the focus of a worldwide manhunt. Investigators are backing away from their earlier belief that a man arrested in Minnesota -- Zacarias Moussaoui -- may have been the intended 20th hijacker. (Full story)

• The BBC reported that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is speaking of a plan in the works to destroy the United States. "The current situation in Afghanistan is related to a bigger cause -- that is the destruction of America," Omar said. "If God's help is with us this will happen within a short period of time."

• Anti-Taliban forces among the ethnic Pashtuns plan to tell the Taliban and their supporters at a tribal council meeting Thursday night that it's time to accept a political solution to the war. Most Taliban are Pashtuns as well.

• Hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed in a battle with the Northern Alliance in Mazar-e Sharif after the anti-Taliban rebels took control of the key northern city last week, according to a Northern Alliance commander.

• United Airlines said Thursday it will install stun guns in the cockpits of its aircraft, and will provide special training for pilots on cockpit defense that will include the use of the weapons.

• Relief agencies have told CNN they are sending teams to assess how secure some of the Afghanistan's key towns are following the Taliban's retreat. The groups have supplies positioned along Afghanistan's border and are poised to deliver huge shipments of aid as soon as they are cleared to enter the country. (Full story)

• Coalition intelligence agencies say they have discovered evidence of transactions involving sophisticated laboratory equipment, along with a new bioterrorism manual distributed to cells of the al Qaeda terrorist network. (Full story)


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