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Taliban fighters' surrender sought

Pentagon: No proof that Omar, bin Laden are together

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces are negotiating the possible surrender of 1,500 Taliban fighters northwest of Kandahar, but the Pentagon said Wednesday it has no reliable evidence these men are sheltering Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Officials said reports have indicated that the heavily armed Taliban fighters who fled Kandahar when it was turned over to U.S. allies may be protecting Omar and even al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The pocket of resistance is about 120 miles northwest of Kandahar near Baghran in the Helmand province.

But a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday that the reports about Omar and bin Laden being in the area have not been confirmed.

"The reports are all over the map," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday in Washington. "And so there is not a preponderance of reports that would allow us to pinpoint a location, because if we had that, well, we'd have them."

Stufflebeem said U.S. Special Forces are aiding anti-Taliban troops in the search for Taliban and al Qaeda leadership as well as continuing to provide intelligence and targeting assistance for possible U.S. airstrikes.

"So that in that regard, they are on the hunt," he said. "To say that we have U.S. forces that are specifically deploying and have a mission requirement of only going to look for these two individuals wouldn't be correct though."

Negotiating a surrender

Stufflebeem also said that the Taliban fighters are negotiating a possible surrender with anti-Taliban forces. Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai said he wants the Taliban fighters to surrender within five days, but the deadline has fluctuated.

"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 Tuesday.

"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."

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the anti-Taliban Afghan forces have been told that the United States wants Omar if he is captured.

"It has been made very clear that we expect to have control of him," she said.

Stufflebeem also said the military believes some members of bin Laden's al Qaeda network have disbanded into smaller groups and remain in Afghanistan, where they may be trying to regroup. Others may have fled to neighboring Pakistan, he said.

Hamid Karzai, chairman of Afghanistan's interim government, said Tuesday that 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 will capture Omar.

Marines back at base after compound search

Meanwhile, about 200 U.S. Marines returned to their camp Wednesday at Kandahar International Airport after conducting a search of a walled compound that Omar is suspected of having once occupied.

The Marines came back in light armored vehicles and Humvees after about 30 hours. Accompanied by anti-Taliban forces on the mission, the Marines said they did not encounter any hostile fire and called the search a good one. Few other details were given.

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

Stufflebeem said the search was an intelligence gathering mission to find out what al Qaeda or Taliban fighters may have left behind. Anti-Taliban forces said Omar was believed to have abandoned the compound within the last three weeks.

"They are looking at locations and facilities where we had good evidence that there had been previously Al Qaeda and Taliban forces, and they're collecting physical evidence," he said.

Meanwhile, 11 more detained al Qaeda and Taliban fighters arrived Tuesday night at the Kandahar airport from a prison near Mazar-e Sharif, bringing the number under Marine guard to 200. Six detainees were carried in on stretchers, possibly suffering from combat wounds.

Sources close to the detainees being questioned said some appear to have attended U.S. schools, including universities. One, in his 20s, was born in Louisiana but left the United States at a young age, possibly moving to Saudi Arabia, the sources said.

Reporters have no access to the detainees, who are being held under tight security.

The United States holds 221 detainees. Beside the 200 at Kandahar airport, eight -- including John Walker, the American captured with the Taliban near Mazar-e Sharif -- are being held aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea, 12 at Bagram air base north of Kabul and one at Mazar-e Sharif, according to Stufflebeem.

Stufflebeem declined to confirm reports that the Taliban's head of intelligence was killed in a U.S. airstrike.

"We just don't have the evidence that's proof-positive," he said.

Abdullah Tawheedi, a deputy head of intelligence in the interim Afghan administration, and U.S. intelligence sources said Wednesday that Qari Ahmadullah was killed in the strike.

Tawheedi said that people had identified Ahmadullah's body after his death two or three days ago and that his remains had been buried in his hometown in the Ghazni province.




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