Three captured Taliban soliders claim to be Britons

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The Foreign Office was today investigating International Red Cross reports that three British nationals suspected of fighting with the Taliban are being detained in an Afghan prison.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman last night confirmed that the Red Cross had reported last Monday that the three men held in Shibergan Prison near Mazar-i Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, were claiming they were Britons. She said the Foreign Office was clarifying their claims over nationality.

"What will happen to them depends on lots of factors. If their identity is British and they are brought to the UK, it is a matter for the prosecution authorities if they have committed a crime," she said.

A report in The Times newspaper claimed the men were of Pakistani origin, but the Foreign Office could not confirm this.

Meanwhile, American forces bombed an al-Qa'ida complex in eastern Afghanistan yesterday after reported sightings of Osama bin Laden, and allied forces hunting Mullah Mohammed Omar searched houses in a remote village in the south-east of the country.

The operations to capture the two men most wanted by America have reached a new pitch as the end approaches in the Afghan conflict. Hundreds of US and Afghan troops, backed by British special forces, have been detached from other duties to concentrate on the tasks.

The air strikes at Khost and the fierce battle that followed reportedly killed 35 people, including the first American soldier to perish under enemy fire. An unknown number of American troops were wounded. The Pentagon said the battle focused on a al-Qa'ida staging post used by the organisation's leaders in travelling across the Pakistani border nine miles away.

Mr bin Laden was said to have been seen arriving there 24 hours earlier in a heavily guarded convoy. The same complex, south of Tora Bora, was hit by cruise missiles in August 1998, with him as the intended target, after the bombings of the American embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. It is known to include buildings, a training camp, and 45 caves.

American military authorities said they were certain a number of senior al-Qa'ida leaders had died in the attack, which was launched after a spy-plane spotted a convoy with the type of security normally associated with Mr bin Laden. Pentagon officials said other intelligence reports also put him at the scene.

Also, US and British special forces led Afghan troops in sealing and searching a village near Baghran in the Helmand province in an attempt to track down the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. Negotiations were continuing for his surrender with the Taliban commander, Abdul Waheed, who was said to be protecting him. American officials were, however, concerned that the talks, which began on Monday, could be dragging on as a smokescreen for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders to escape.

The death toll of US personnel in the region is now 11.