America resumes bombing as net closes on Omar

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The Independent Online

As America renewed its bombing of Taliban targets in eastern Afghanistan yesterday, the Pentagon faced serious allegation that earlier air strikes in the region had killed more than 50 innocent civilians, half of them children.

The new charges came as the net appeared to be tightening around the fugitive former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Washington resumed its bombing campaign after a four-day pause with US Navy aircraft and land-based bombers blasting what General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as a "substantial" former Taliban compound and cave complex just south of Tora Bora, the mountain stronghold that was the target of a massive bombing attack last month in the vain hunt for Osama bin Laden.

There was no immediate word of how successful were the raids, which took place a few miles inside Afghanistan's border with Pakistan ­ in exactly the same area where the US directed cruise missiles in retaliation for the suicide bombings of two of its embassies in Africa in 1998, also believed to be the work of al-Qa'ida.

The strikes may have been directed at one of the pockets of Taliban/al-Qa'ida resistance in Afghanistan. But they were also a deliberate signal from the Bush administration that whatever the concern of the new government in Kabul at the civilian casualties caused by the continuing aerial bombardment, the US will use every weapon available to hunt down the leaders of the terrorist network and the Taliban still at large.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, in his first Pentagon briefing of the new year, said: "We are looking for them, we intend to find them, and we intend to capture or kill them." The new government in Afghanistan was "exactly on the same sheet of music" about how to deal with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida still at large, he claimed.

At the same time, hundreds of US paratroops stepped up their search for Mullah Omar, who is now said by Afghan officials in Kabul to be hiding in the Baghran area in Helmand province, some 100 miles north-west of Kandahar, with hundreds of his followers. US special force units, in groups of 12, are said to be combing the area, but without visible success so far. According to one report, he stayed in a small village called Bagani, near Baghran, after fleeing the city of Kandahar.

Jamal Khan, a commander for Haji Gulalai, the intelligence chief in Kandahar, and other Afghan leaders said talks had been going on with Mullah Omar through third parties since Monday to secure his surrender.

But the outcome of the talks was anything but clear, as was the fate of Mullah Omar if he were to be handed over, whether to the Americans or to the new Afghan government. Nusrat Allah, a senior Afghan intelligence official, claimed to have received a "positive response" from tribal chieftains said to be sheltering Omar and his associates in Baghran, insisting that a breakthrough was likely "soon".

But in Washington, officials were far more sceptical about the negotiations. Rear-Admiral John Stufflebeem said that although up to 1,500 Taliban fighters trapped in the valley might be negotiating a way out, "I think it's a leap of faith if we believe that that is on the behalf of Mullah Omar himself".

Meanwhile, the Pentagon faced new charges as rescuers and local reports claimed the bodies or parts of bodies of 52 people, 25 of them children, had been found at two villages in the eastern Paktia province after a bombing attack on Sunday morning, on what the US claimed were hide-outs of Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network and the Taliban, including an arms depot.

But United Nations spokesmen insisted that innocent villagers were the victims of what would be the third major recent incident of unintended "collateral damage" caused by American air strikes in the eastern provinces of Paktia and Paktika. Local people accused a warlord, Pacha Khan, of bringing about the latest attack. Khan is also alleged to have engineered an American attack on a convoy last month, by feeding false information to the US intelligence to settle personal political scores.

In Kabul, Stephanie Bunker, a UN spokeswoman, said that "all of the injured and killed were civilians", while Lakhdar Brahimi, the world body's special representative in Afghanistan, expressed his own "grave concern".

The US is now detaining 248 Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters at a marine base near Kandahar and aboard a Navy vessel in the Arabian sea. Many of them will then be taken to the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, which is being readied as a holding centre. In Kabul, the interim government of Hamid Karzai released some 300 Taliban prisoners.