Taliban claim they are closing in on warlord

War on Terrorism: Opposition
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The Taliban regime in Afghanistan said yesterday that it was closing in on Hamid Qazai, a prominent opposition leader, a week after it captured and executed Abdul Haq, another senior figure who had entered the country in secret.

The Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said troops were pursuing Mr Qazai in the mountains of the central Uruzgan province, an area where some believe the al- Qa'ida leader, Osama bin Laden, may be hiding.

Mr Zaeef said four American helicopters tried to rescue Mr Qazai when Taliban forces attacked his hideout in the Dehrawad district of Uruzgan. "The group has gone into the mountains, and the Taliban are still following them," he said.

Like Haq, Mr Qazai is a respected tribal leader among the Pashtun who is seeking to stir up a rebellion against the Taliban. Both men crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan about a fortnight ago, but on 26 October Haq was captured and hanged within hours. The Taliban said the Americans had given him large sums of money with which to buy the support of tribal leaders for the exiled king, Zahir Shah.

Mr Qazai is the leader of the Popolzai clan among the Pashtun, whose home area is near Kandahar, also the stronghold of the Taliban. A week ago he was reported to be within 10 miles of the city, but was said to have been pushed back by Taliban forces.

A source close to Pashtun tribal leaders said the Taliban's claim that Mr Qazai was in Uruzgan should be treated with caution. "He was previously reported to be south of Kandahar," the source said. "It is far more likely that he would have fallen back towards the Pakistani border."

In the Pakistani city of Quetta, Mr Qazai's base, his brother Ahmed said yesterday that he had spoken to Mr Qazai a few hours previously. "There were incidents with the Taliban, but they are fine," he said.