Elusive Mullah Omar 'flees on bike'

Search for Taliban leader
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The Independent Online

The one-eyed mullah, on a motorbike, leaving Baghran. That appears to be the latest move in the game of Cluedo that the hunt for Mullah Mohammed Omar has now become.

After days during which US and Afghan troops, backed by British special forces, were supposedly closing in on the Taliban leader near Baghran in Helmand province, the consensus last night was that he had managed to slip through the "ring of steel". One unconfirmed report said he had escaped on a motorbike; the hunt for him continues.

Yesterday the Americans moved more troops into south-east Afghanistan, where there are believed to be more than 1,500 heavily armed Taliban fighters. US-friendly Afghan warlords were said to be conducting a fresh round of "intelligence gathering", consisting mostly of offering bribes to tribal leaders with the threat that US air strikes would follow unless they handed over Mullah Omar.

There had been great hopes that the local Taliban commander, Abdul Waheed, would surrender the Mullah, who he is supposed to be protecting, in return for cash. But now there is increasing suspicion among the Americans that they have been outbid by Commander Waheed, and that he struck a deal with the warlords to get himself and his charge to safety.

On Friday, the new interim Afghan government had claimed Mullah Omar's time was up. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the urbane foreign minister, declared: "The area is under siege and Mullah Omar is surrounded. He is a war criminal. There is a possibility that he will be tried in an international tribunal."

Dr Abdullah's boss, the premier Hamid Karzai, hastily pointed out that the military and spiritual leader of the Taliban had, in fact, been promised to Washington. "He is a criminal of an international standard and he should be delivered to the US," said Mr Karzai.

So what went wrong? Omar Samad, the foreign ministry spokesman, offered this explanation: "In Afghan terms, surrounded does not really mean surrounded. Sure, there were people around where he was supposed to be, but he wasn't actually surrounded, they could not cover every inch. Anyway, he is in Helmand province, people are in hot pursuit and it is only a matter of time before he is captured or killed."

Four hours later, Mr Samad said: "It is inconceivable that he would be in Baghran after all this publicity. We don't know whether he is in Helmand province, in Uruzgan province, or Kandahar province. But it is only a matter of time before we catch him."

At the presidential palace, Mr Karzai was also musing about his rash promise to the Americans. "I don't think he's been captured yet," he said unhappily. "If he has been captured, I would know it – I think."

American security sources say no one apart from local Kandahari warlords knows exactly what went on at the "surrender talks" which started nearly a week ago. There was confusion about what deal had been offered to whom, as well as difficulties caused by inter-tribal and inter-clan rivalries.

General Tommy Franks, the US war commander, acknowledged yesterday that some Afghans are probably accepting bribes to free al-Qa'ida or Taliban fighters the US wishes to interrogate. Some may even feed bad intelligence to the Americans to bring on attacks against rivals, as was allegedly the case in two air strikes recently. But with the US unwilling to deploy more than the 4,000 troops it has here, Gen Franks says there is no alternative.