Taliban ministers held as US signals switch in targets

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The Independent Online

Four senior members of the Taliban were being held yesterday by American and allied forces in Afghanistan as US warplanes launched their most intense attacks in the east since the offensive on Tora Bora.

The newly deployed international peace-keeping force was fired on for the first time. Hours before Tony Blair and nine US senators arrived at Bagram air base for a brief visit, a tracer bullet was reportedly fired at a French convoy travelling there from Kabul.

No one was injured in the attack but with the numbers of the International Security Assistance Force rising to 770, and hundreds more to follow in the next few days, it underlined the volatility of the situation.

General Tommy Franks, the commander of Operation Enduring Freedom, said his troops could cross into Pakistan in efforts to capture Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. But the Pentagon also declared that it was going to "stop chasing shadows" and get on with military action. The raids on Zhawar Kili al-Badr base in eastern Afghanistan and anti-aircraft defences near the town of Khost were seen as the manifestation of this.

US Marines and special forces moved into the areas after an initial wave of strikes by B-1 and B-52 bombers and carrier-based Navy fighters to pile up unexploded ammunition and heavy weapons that were destroyed by a second series of attacks. Senior officers said similar attacks would take place on targets where al-Qa'ida and Taliban were still active.

US Navy Rear-Admiral John Stufflebeem said: "We're going ... to focus more on the entire picture of the country, where these pockets of resistance are ... so that we can develop a better intelligence picture."

With Mr bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, still on the run, the US authorities were keen to announce the surrender of three Taliban ministers in Kandahar and the capture of its former head of information by tribal forces.

The detention of Mullah Ubai Dullah, the ex-minister of defence, and Mullahs Turabi and Saadudin, formerly in charge respectively of justice and mines, and the propaganda chief, Abdul Hayee Motmain, who was close to Mullah Omar, was a sign that the Taliban hierarchy had crumbled, US diplomats claimed. General Franks said US forces would gain custody of one or two Taliban or al-Qa'ida leaders.

Gul Agha, the US-backed governor of Kandahar, who has been held at least partly responsible for the escape of Mullah Omar from a supposed trap in the Baghran region of Helmand last week, was also quick to claim credit. He said: "We are winning, the Taliban leaders are coming to give themselves up and joining up with us."

Mr Motmain was detained by tribal forces on Monday in the southern Kandahar region. Their commander, Gud Fida Mohammed, said: "We have handed him over to US forces, he will provide them with valuable information. He knows a lot about Mullah Omar."

US sources said yesterday that two of Taliban leaders may have been killed in air strikes. They were named as Mahfouz Ould Walid, known as Abu Hafs the Mauritanian; and Abu Jafar al-Jaziri, described as a special operations co-ordinator. A military trainer, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, from Baghdad, is reported to have been captured.

Most senior Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders are still unaccounted for. General Franks said extensive searches of the Tora Bora caves showed that Mr bin Laden and top Taliban officials had taken refuge there. He disclosed that Pakistan had agreed that US troops in hot pursuit of fugitive al-Qa'ida and Taliban targets, and US special forces gathering intelligence and co-ordinating attacks, could cross the border.

Pakistan has said it had stationed 50,000 troops at the Afghan frontier. But the border has still proved to be porous and there have been increasing reports of armed groups regrouping in Pakistan and crossing back into Afghanistan. In Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, one of a group of al- Qa'ida fighters surrounded at a hospital blew himself up with a grenade yesterday. There were also unconfirmed reports of Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters infiltrating back into the city.

Contingents from Germany, France and the Netherlands have joined British troops in the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. The Canadian government announced that 750 military personnel would join US forces in southern Afghanistan, the first groups arriving in 10 days.

US forces were now holding 346 prisoners, the Pentagon said yesterday. Most of the detainees are under guard at Kandahar air base, while 21 are being held at Bagram air base.

Three held at Kandahar are believed to be British citizens. The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that it had been refused permission to see two British nationals captured fighting with Taliban forces in Tora Bora and being held in a Kabul jail.