US Still Without Bin Laden as Agreement Announced on Security Force

Published December 19th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Despite hunting cave by cave and interrogating war prisoners, US-led forces went another day without their quarry, chief terror suspect Osama bin Laden, as an agreement is announced on the size and mission of an international security force. 

The Pentagon said it has about 20 prisoners taken by anti-Taliban forces, including three considered "fairly important." But officials conceded the prisoners had not yet led them to bin Laden or his erstwhile protector, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.  

"What they've told us so far ... doesn't suggest recent knowledge. But on the other hand, somebody might be sitting on recent knowledge and not telling us," said Deputy US Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. 

Interim Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim said Wednesday that the incoming administration had agreed to a 3,000-strong multinational force to be deployed for six months until a permanent government is due to be established. 

"The people of Afghanistan liberated their country by themselves and international forces will come here mainly for the reconstruction of Afghanistan," Fahim told reporters. 

"They will not be here to interfere in people's affairs. Affairs of the Afghan people should be run by Afghans themselves," he added. 

Fahim said the foreign troops would be deployed in three fields, security, medical and engineering reconstruction and a 1,000-strong reserve force, presumably based at Bagram airport, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kabul. 

Earlier, ministry officials had said they were willing to accept up to 5,000 peacekeepers, a deal rejected by Fahim, who had originally proposed 1,000 foreign troops deployed solely to protect the fledgling government. 

Kabul officials have also ruled out any patrols by the force, whose duties, they say, should be confined to guarding government buildings -- a step back from the December 5 Bonn agreement that set up the interim cabinet and foresaw a demilitarized Kabul policed by the UN-mandated military force. 

Among the countries participating in the mission, Britain plans to deploy 1,500 troops, France said it could provide up to 800 troops, and Spain offered 700.  

Italy said it could send 300, Greece 150 and Finland an unspecified number. 

Top UN officials hope to overcome disagreements over the mandate for the international force before voting on a resolution to deploy it Thursday, diplomats said. 

Ambassadors from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China, the United States, France, Britain and Russia, met Tuesday without agreeing on the text of the resolution, and were to meet again Wednesday. 

"It now goes back to the capitals. Here, we can't find the words when there is no accord at its core," a diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. 

Diplomats suggest the difficulty lies in defining the peacekeepers' role -- whether they should be confined to protecting government buildings, as requested by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance which controls the capital, or protect humanitarian aid convoys traveling around the country.  

France and Germany argue the force, likely to include troops from those countries, should be deployed only in the capital, Kabul, and at the Bagram airport. 

The vote, already postponed several times, must come before Saturday, the date Karzai's new interim government is to be installed. 

In recent days, US forces have concentrated their search for bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains, but have said it is also possible he may have fled to neighboring Pakistan or elsewhere. 

"I think it's possible he could be dead in the bottom of (a cave)," Wolfowitz said. "We don't know where he is now, and he could be on the run." 

Wolfowitz warned anyone thinking of sheltering the Saudi-born extremist accused of masterminding the September 11 attacks on US cities to consider what happened to think twice. 

"I just think any country in the world that would knowingly harbor bin Laden would be out of their minds, and I think they've seen what happened to the Taliban, and I think that's probably a pretty good lesson to people not to do that," Wolfowitz told a Pentagon briefing. 

In Yemen, hundreds of forces searched for fighters from bin Laden's al-Qaeda network on Wednesday, a day after 17 people died in a battle, tribal and government sources said. 

"They are still looking for these people," a ministry of interior source told AFP. "It is not easy, these are tribal areas." 

A senior tribal source said 13 government troops and four tribesmen died Tuesday when army and police units fired mortars into Al-Hosun village in Marib province, 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of the capital Sanaa, setting off a gun and tank battle. 

Troops backed by helicopters have been combing the provinces of Marib, Shabwa and Al-Juf for the last two weeks in search of three Yemenis believed to be ranking members of al-Qaeda, official sources said. 

Yemen, along with Somalia, Iraq and Sudan, has often been cited as a possible future target of the US-led war on terrorism. 

There was no official reaction from Washington but a State Department official privately applauded the attack, adding the United States had given Yemeni authorities a specific list of al-Qaeda suspects believed to be in their country. 

Forces inside Afghanistan were also searching for Omar, for whose capture the United States has offered a 10-million-dollar reward. 

Gul Agha, the governor of Kandahar province, told the BBC he had sent search parties out to track down Omar at a mountain base near Baghran, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Kandahar city. 

Speaking from Rome, Karzai said that the Taliban leadership must be brought to justice, with Omar, "on top" of that list. 

"I have already asked the Afghan people to look for him," he said in an interview with ABC news. "I see no barriers at all to any kind of trial he could face, in Afghanistan, in the international courts, or in the United States."  

Earlier, he had pledged to "end terrorism" in his country and that bin Laden could expect no leniency. 

"I want to have him arrested," Karzai said. "Terrorism has made our people suffer. I am determined to get rid of (terrorists) not only in Afghanistan but also in the rest of the world." 

Karzai's comments came after meeting with Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who lives in exile in Rome. The 87-year-old ex-monarch is due to return to his homeland in a month's time with a coterie of influential supporters to enjoy a figurehead position. 

Bin Laden has fled Afghanistan 

Meanwhile, Bin Laden has fled Afghanistan, a spokesman for a top Afghan military commander said Wednesday, according to the Afghan Islamic Press. 

A spokesman for Haji Mohammad Zaman, military chief for Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, which includes the Tora Bora caves where al-Qaeda fighters have been defeated, said: "We are now confident that Osama bin Laden is not in Afghanistan." 

Zaman's forces claimed victory over al-Qaeda fighters in the White Mountain range at the weekend. US forces are still hunting for bin Laden, the main suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, in the region. 

"Our operation in Tora Bora is over," said the spokesman in the provincial capital Jalalabad. 

"We have captured only 16 al-Qaeda fighters including some Afghans, while some others were held by other commanders," the spokesman said. 

He said that Afghans had also turned against bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is also in hiding. "There is no question of providing any shelter to Osama," he said. 

Bin Laden's foreign followers have also fled. "There are no more Arabs in Tora Bora," Zaman's spokesman said. 

"We have pulled out our forces to Jalalabad and it is possible that some local groups would stay there. There is no bombing in Tora Bora now."—(AFP)

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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