American forces quiz ex-minister who surrendered

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US forces in Afghanistan were yesterday questioning the former Taliban foreign minister, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, after he gave himself up. He is the most senior member of the ousted regime in custody.

According to reports, Mr Muttawakil surrendered to the new mayor of Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold in southern Afghanistan, who handed him over to the Americans. But whether he has up to date information on the whereabouts of other Taliban leaders or Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida associates is doubtful.

A relative moderate by Taliban standards, the minister was said to have been sidelined in recent months after he advocated handing over Mr bin Laden to the US. In the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, for which the al-Qa'ida leader is the prime suspect, Mr Muttawakil wanted to negotiate with the Americans, in contrast to the defiant stance taken by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's leader and his former mentor.

Although he is a prize capture for the US forces and their Afghan allies, it could cause an outcry if the Americans seek to take Mr Muttawakil out of Afghanistan to Camp X-Ray in Cuba. He may have struck a deal in advance to avoid this fate. "He was always more pragmatic, and he was one of those who disagreed with fighting the Americans," said a senior Kandahar political source. "He seems to have done a deal now for his safety."

The interim administration's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said his predecessor had been living in the Pakistani city of Quetta, and suggested the Pakistani authorities might have helped him negotiate his surrender. But this was denied in Quetta.

Mr Muttawakil, believed to be only 32, was a student of Mullah Omar, and became his driver, food taster and translator. One of the few senior Taliban members who could speak English, he quickly became the movement's spokesman and later its foreign minister. But he became frustrated and intimidated by the Taliban's isolationism and violent fundamentalism.