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Anti-Taliban forces on Omar's reported trail

BAGHRAN, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces Monday were moving toward the Baghran area where the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is believed to be hiding, according to Pentagon sources.

There have also been intelligence reports al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden might be in the same general region after escaping from the Tora Bora cave region in mid-December. But Pentagon officials added they really do not know where bin Laden is.

U.S. Special Forces were preparing to join the Afghan troops to provide targeting assistance for possible U.S. airstrikes, the sources said. Marines are not participating, the sources said.

Baghran is about 190 kilometers (118 miles) northwest of Kandahar in Helmand province.

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At the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee would not describe the efforts as a search for "one particular person."

"Our goal over there is to capture and prevent the escape of Taliban and al Qaeda leadership. That's an ongoing mission," he said.

He said the U.S. military now has 180 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in custody -- 172 at facilities in Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif and Bagram air base north of Kabul, and eight others, including American Taliban John Walker, aboard the USS Bataan.

Local anti-Taliban leader Gul Agha Sherzai has moved in several hundred of his forces around Baghran in an area protected by thousands of Taliban sympathizers about 120 miles northwest of the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

Earlier, U.S. officials said they received "credible" reports that Omar may be hiding in the area.

Omar led the Taliban during its five-year rule over most of Afghanistan. The Taliban abandoned Kandahar, their political and spiritual base, in early December. Bin Laden is the U.S. government's primary suspect as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Two sources familiar with operations in Afghanistan said U.S. intelligence and military officials on the ground in Afghanistan were in contact with local Afghan leaders seeking assistance in investigating the information.

"All I can say is it was something that seems to warrant looking into," one U.S. official said Monday.

The other official, speaking Sunday, said U.S. forces in the region were "preparing" for possible military action if the information turned out to be credible.

President Bush said Monday it was just a matter of time before bin Laden and Omar were found.

"You know, you hear all kinds of reports, and all kinds of rumors. You know, you've got people saying he's [bin Laden] in a cave, people saying he's dead, people saying he's in Pakistan," Bush told reporters in Crawford, Texas.

"All I know is that he's running. And any time you get a person running, it means you're going to get him pretty soon. And the same with Mullah Omar. It's just a matter of time."

Over the weekend, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said bin Laden is probably alive but might have slipped out of Afghanistan.

"Where he is, is a question mark," said U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida "The trail has gone cold as to whether he's still in the caves of Tora Bora or in fact has slipped out into Pakistan."

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.



 
 
 
 



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