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Marines finish searching Taliban compound

U.S. Marines return to their base in an armored vehicle.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- About 200 U.S. Marines returned to base here in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday after conducting a search of a walled compound where it is believed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar once stayed.

Anti-Taliban forces said Omar is believed to have abandoned the compound in the last three weeks, and Marine officers described the search as an intelligence gathering mission to find out what al Qaeda or Taliban fighters might have left behind.

The compound, described as a massive complex with at least 14 separate buildings, is in Helmand province, just west of the Marines' Kandahar base.

The Marines returned in light armored vehicles and Humvees after being gone for about 30 hours.

The Marines, who were accompanied by anti-Taliban forces, said they did not encounter any hostile fire and described the search as a good one. Few other details were given.

Col. Andrew Frick, commanding officer of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said the Marines will typically bring five times the minimum firepower and manpower they think they will need for any given mission.

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"If you want to ... keep innocent bystanders away from the objective and still isolate it and allow people to methodically walk through the structures, we needed a larger force."

Talking fighters out of weapons

While the Marines were conducting the search operation, U.S. Special Forces soldiers were working with local anti-Taliban forces, under the command of Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, to persuade 1,500 Taliban fighters in Baghran to hand over their weapons.

Baghran also is in the Helmand province about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, once a Taliban stronghold.

Shirzai said he wants the Taliban fighters to surrender within five days.

"We are trying to contact them to surrender peacefully and bring all their weapons and money or anything they stole from Kandahar after the looting," Shirzai said.

"As soon as they come and peacefully surrender with all their arms, we will be glad -- if they have not committed serious atrocities against the people of Afghanistan -- to forgive them, and they can live in peace in Afghanistan," he said.

Other missions and movements

Special Forces soldiers also continued their mission to provide intelligence and targeting assistance for possible U.S. airstrikes.

Officially, the Pentagon said, the operations are not linked to the search for Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, although Pentagon sources have said they believe Omar is hiding in the Baghran area with other Taliban fighters.

Despite the ongoing missions, the whereabouts of Omar and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the primary suspect as mastermind of the September 11 attacks, remain unclear.

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai said he gave his personal approval for a mission to track down Omar but did not say where the troops -- mostly Afghans -- are looking. Karzai said he is confident they eventually would capture Omar.

Shirzai said Tuesday he believes the Taliban leader was "somewhere in Kandahar" and that his troops were "trying hard to capture Mullah Omar and bring him to justice."

At the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, however, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee would not describe U.S. 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.

A total of 210 suspected Taliban and al Qaeda members are in U.S. detention. There are 189 detainees at Kandahar, 12 at the Bagram air base, one at Mazar-e Sharif and eight aboard a U.S. ship.

Eight detainees -- including John Walker, the American captured with the Taliban -- were moved Monday from the USS Peleliu in the North Arabian Sea to another nearby ship, the USS Bataan, U.S. military officials said.

A Central Command official said the transfer was necessary because Marines in Kandahar will return to the ship in the days ahead and the Pelisse "will be preparing for other military missions."

-- CNN Correspondent Bill Hemmer and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.




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