Captured senior officials interrogated by US as Mullah Omar hunt continues

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The Independent Online

American officials have begun interrogating the two highest-ranking Taliban and al-Qa'ida officials in their custody while the hunt for Mullah Mohammed Omar continues without much success.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the high-profile former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, and Ibn Al-Shayak al-Libi, who ran Osama bin Laden's training camps, were handed over to the Americans by, respectively, the Pakistani and Afghan governments.

Mr al-Libi is being held in Kandahar, where the prisoners include three British Muslims captured fighting among Taliban ranks. Mullah Zaeef is on board an American warship in the Arabian Sea. They are expected to be moved to the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, which has been prepared as a centre for Afghan prisoners.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees rejected Mullah Zaeef's application for refugee status. Pakistan, the Taliban's strongest supporter and sponsor before the 11 September attacks, said the mullah was no longer protected by diplomatic immunity after the Taliban government fell.

About 300 prisoners are being held at Kandahar air base; 25 more arrived from Pakistan yesterday. A Saudi newspaper also reported yesterday that Pakistan was holding more than 200 Saudis caught fleeing Afghanistan and any of them with links to al- Qa'ida would be handed over to the Americans.

Lieutenant James Jarvis of the US Marines said: "The men are being interrogated for information, and we are looking for things we can act upon in our operations against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida."

The two men most wanted by the US, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, remain elusive. In Kabul, the Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai, maintained that Mullah Omar would be arrested "soon" but admitted he had disappeared after supposedly being surrounded in the Baghran area of Helmand province in central Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the multinational force for Afghanistan has begun to establish itself in Kabul. Thirty members of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, flew to Bagram air base, north-east of the city, last night to join the 350 British troops already here, and a 50-strong French contingent has begun work to clear Kabul airport of mines and unexploded bombs. But joint patrols – the first operations the force planned with Afghan troops – were postponed when local forces did not turn up on two consecutive days.