Talks under way to capture Omar without bloodshed

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Military activity in south-eastern Afghanistan intensified yesterday as American and Afghan troops, backed by British special forces, prepared to close in on a remote mountain valley where Mullah Mohammed Omar is believed to have taken refuge.

Harrier jets flew overhead as 200 American marines and an armoured convoy left Kandahar, in the south of the country, for Baghran in Helmand province, where the Taliban leader is reported be hiding.

In Kabul, the interim Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, confirmed that Allied forces had begun an operation to find the mullah. The US command said only that the mission was to find "clues as to the whereabouts of the Taliban leadership".

Talks were also under way to try to capture Mullah Omar without any bloodshed, anti-Taliban forces said. "We are still in contact with the people there to find a way to end this issue peacefully," said an official for the intelligence chief Haji Gullalai, in Kandahar. "I think we can achieve this goal through dialogue and discussion."

It was also revealed yesterday that American and British special forces had discovered a mass of documents about the Taliban, its leaders, and Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network, in a walled compound near Kandahar. Some of the material is believed to contain details about hideouts in Helmand.

The focus of US military activity was about 100 miles north-west of Kandahar, where the Taliban commander Abdul Wahid, who played a big role in the surrender of the city, may be protecting Mullah Omar.

Afghan security officials said that Commander Wahid may have more than a thousand Taliban fighters with him. Khan Mohammed, an anti-Taliban leader, said: "No limit can be put to the number of weapons they have. There is even information that they have aeroplanes and helicopters." Another commander, Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, a former Taliban member, said that Commander Wahid and Mullah Omar would be guarded by the most determined of the Taliban fighters.

Gul Agha Shirzai, a local commander, had been expected to launch his own attack on Baghran on Sunday, with a 2,000-strong force. But the advance was cancelled when the American military revealed its own plans to attack.

In Washington, Rear Admiral Craig Quigley said that the marines had left Kandahar on an intelligence mission. He denied that Mullah Omar was the target, but added: "If we come across him, we are not going to turn him down.''

The Pentagon also announced that the former Taliban chief of intelligence, Qari Ahmadullah, was killed last week in an air strike on Naka in Paktika province.