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U.S. hunts bin Laden near Jalalabad, Kandahar

Gen. Tommy Franks
Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, explains military objectives Tuesday.  

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida (CNN) -- U.S. forces are searching for Taliban leaders and suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden around the Afghan cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad, the U.S. commander in the region said Tuesday.

"We have been able to watch a variety of terrain and undertake review of a whole variety of imagery and talk to an awful lot of people over time," said Gen. Tommy Franks, the chief of the U.S. Central Command. "Factually, those are the places right now we have been led to pay very close attention to."

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted that those areas were not the only places the U.S.-led coalition is looking for bin Laden, who U.S. officials hold responsible for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Rumsfeld and Franks spoke at a news conference Tuesday at Central Command headquarters near Tampa, Florida.

Washington has put a $25 million price on bin Laden's head, and recent U.S. airstrikes have concentrated largely on cave and tunnel complexes in Afghanistan believed to be used by Taliban and al Qaeda troops. The United States has used special operations troops in southern Afghanistan to seek out officials of the Taliban and al Qaeda, bin Laden's organization.

That effort was bolstered over the weekend by the arrival of a U.S. Marine contingent that has set up a base southwest of Kandahar, the Taliban's political and spiritual base. The first of an estimated 1,000-plus Marines from two assault carriers in the Arabian Sea began landing in Afghanistan on Sunday.

They can be used to react quickly to reports about Taliban and al Qaeda forces in the area, said J. Kelly McCann, a former Marine involved in special operations. "Intelligence is so fluid right now," McCann told CNN. "To fit somebody in place in order to go kill them, you've got to be able to respond quickly for that information to be useful. So now with the Marines on the ground you're talking about a reaction time that's under an hour in some cases, maybe minutes."

Franks said Kandahar -- the last bastion of Taliban support after two weeks of battlefield reversals -- "is a very confused place right now."

"We see evidence that a great deal of people, non-Afghan types, are trying to get out of Kandahar," he said.

The area around Jalalabad was once home to al Qaeda training camps, and features several complexes of tunnels and caves -- including some built with U.S. assistance during the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, said Larry Goodson, author of a book on two decades of Afghan conflict.

Many of those complexes are unlikely to be destroyed by U.S. bombing raids, Goodson said.

"What the Soviets had to do was basically explode devices within the caves or within the tunnel complexes, and then send in special operations units to see what was inside," he said. "I suspect that we'll see that sort of operation."

Opposition forces have captured numerous sites U.S. officials suspect bin Laden used to develop weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. authorities were conducting extensive tests on items found there. Franks said U.S. investigators are conducting "very exhaustive" tests to determine whether al Qaeda had taken steps to develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"We have found a variety of chemical compositions and these sorts of things, but one would also be able to associate those with the making of fertilizer or the making of other types of products. We have acquired a great deal of samples, and now what we need to do is be very thorough in our analysis."

Rumsfeld said if any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are found, "The United States would be very interested in getting our hands on them and very interested in seeing they did not remain in the country."


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