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Political confidence inspires refugee return

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Buoyed by confidence in Afghanistan's newly installed interim administration, Afghan refugees from Pakistan have begun returning to their homeland in numbers.

Hamid Karzai's administration, which has a six-month mandate, resumed the task of rebuilding the shattered country on Wednesday, with the government meeting for the second time since its inauguration.

No details were immediately available but a guard at the presidential palace, where ministers' cars pulled up in the morning, said they were arriving for a government meeting.

Refugees in Quetta and other border areas begun returning from Pakistan to Afghanistan through the border town of Chaman.

"On Tuesday alone 800 families returned," a Pakistani border official told Reuters news agency.

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The returning Afghans were buying up television sets, satellite dishes and video recorders to take home, and traders said the markets in Quetta, Chaman and Spin Boldak had run out of many items and prices were rising sharply as demand soared.

Bin Laden push renewed

U.S. forces were preparing for a new push in the hunt for Osama bin Laden after a brief respite for Christmas.

U.S. defense officials in Washington said U.S. and allied forces would soon make a fresh thrust into caves and tunnels in the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan after bombing bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters there into submission.

"Operations are imminent," one defense official said.

Other officials said late last week about 500 Marines had been put on stand-by in Afghanistan for possible orders to help search the caves, al Qaeda's last major Afghan redoubt, for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.

The Saudi-born militant, accused of masterminding the September 11 attacks on the United States, has vanished and U.S. officials acknowledge they no longer know whether he is dead or alive or has fled from Afghanistan.

Kenton Keith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition conducting the hunt for bin Laden, said in Pakistan it was "quite possible" he had been killed, but the U.S. defense official said the search was still on.

Uzbek warlord in government

Karzai, sworn in on Saturday following the demise of bin Laden's Taliban protectors, has said U.S. forces may remain in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to find him.

Karzai has moved quickly to establish support for his 30-member cabinet, whose challenge lies in building consensus in a country where years of war has fractured a devastated land into a patchwork of areas run by ethnic warlords and tribal barons.

He has included Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord, in the government to help build broad-based support among ethnic minorities and to fend off a powerful potential foe.

Dostum's inclusion also marks a first step to establishing a national army for Afghanistan from its many militias.

Those fighters have been vital allies in the U.S. air campaign that routed the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban and in the ground assault to flush out diehard Taliban and al Qaeda loyalists.

Air strikes resume

In the southern city of Kandahar, eight wounded Arab al Qaeda fighters armed with guns and grenades remained barricaded in a ward of a hospital after a failed attempt by U.S.-backed forces loyal to city governor Gul Agha to flush them out.

Shooting broke out at the hospital earlier after one of the group, apparently injured in U.S. bombing raids, was lured into leaving the ward and sounded the alarm when he rearealized was a trap. U.S. forces arrested him, witnesses said.

"Now they are very nervous and they won't allow anyone in, not even the nurses," said security guard Niaz Mohammad.

Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban and the movement's last bastion, fell to tribal fighters on December 7.

U.S. defense officials said air strikes over Afghanistan had resumed on Sunday north of Kandahar.

The strikes ended a lull following a deadly raid on a convoy in eastern Afghanistan last week that survivors said was a mistaken target.

Villagers in eastern Paktia province and survivors say up to 60 people were killed when U.S. aircraft attacked a motorcade carrying ethnic Pashtun tribal elders to Karzai's inauguration.

U.S. defense officials say they struck a legitimate target -- presumed to be Taliban militia -- after members of the convoy fired shoulder-launched missiles at U.S. aircraft.

Karzai's spokesman Ustad Stanikzai added to speculation that Afghan foes of some of the elders in the motorcade may deliberately have misidentified them to U.S. forces.

"Rivalries among the various tribes may have led to the incident," Stanikzai said.

Reuters contributed to this report.





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