British special forces leading hunt for Mullah Omar

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The Independent Online

British special forces are leading a hunt for the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in southern Afghanistan.

The operation, in conjunction with US troops and Afghan fighters, is being mounted in the border areas of Kandahar and Zabol province where large numbers of defeated Taliban and al-Qa'ida forces are believed to be regrouping.

British forces are concentrated in the south, which is the reason they are not involved in the continuing operation further north, in Gardez, in which seven American soldiers have been killed and 11 injured.

About 50 members of the SAS and SBS are involved in the operation, which has seen a number of missions along the Khwaja Amran mountain range. American commanders have restricted the operation to US, British and Afghan contingents, unlike the assault on Gardez, codenamed Operation Anaconda, which involves forces from Canada, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway and France as well as Americans.

Unlike the Gardez operation, the mission in the south-east, in the remote Pashtun heartland, is shrouded in secrecy.

According to defence sources, the operation follows intelligence reports that Mullah Omar is in the area with a number of his lieutenants. There is no suggestion that Osama bin Laden is also there.

More than half a dozen raids have been lanuched so far, mainly in Kandahar province, including some in the Hada Hills, near the town of Spin Boldak, where the Taliban made a stand before retreating into Pakistan. A number of Taliban and Allied Afghan fighters have been killed but there are no reports of casualties among British or American troops.

The main part of the Afghan force taking part in the operation is loyal to Gul Agha Shirzai, the American-backed governor of Kandahar. Last month, Mr Shirzai held talks with about a dozen senior Taliban leaders ­ including representatives of Mullah Omar ­ to discuss terms of their possible surrender. Information gathered during the talks helped in planning some of the raids by the British and American forces.

Mullah Omar was supposedly trapped in Bagran in Helmand province in January, but managed to escape, supposedly on a motorcycle. American commanders blamed Afghan allies for letting him escape in return for substantial bribes. Afterwards it was decided that the hunt should be conducted by British and American forces, with the Afghans supporting.

Tony Blair stressed yesterday that the position in Afghanistan remained volatile. Speaking about the American troops killed in the Gardez operation, he said: "I think what it does emphasise is how Afghanistan remains a dangerous place. That's why it is important we continue taking action."

The assault on the encircled Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters near Gardez was stepped up yesterday with waves of aircraft continuing to strike their mountain strongholds. Abdul Matin Hasan Khiel, a frontline commander, said: "They can't escape."

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