Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders have been killed in bombing raids by US warplanes on houses in Kandahar and Kabul, the Pentagon claimed yesterday.
"We are tightening the noose, it's a matter of time," General Tommy Franks, head of US Central Command, said last night. But the elusiveness of Osama bin Laden has led to frustrated military planners in Washington and London adopting new tactics.
The air attacks on the targets, both private houses, followed information from Afghan sources that both Mr bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, had stayed in one or both of the properties.
In the Pentagon the talk is now of "phase two". With the Taliban having been all but routed, the hunt for Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida is now being pursued with increasing ferocity. While Northern Alliance soldiers tackle Taliban fighters in their last strongholds, the Allies are concentrating resources on trying to capture or kill al-Qa'ida's leader. Up to 150 US and British special forces soldiers are leading the search for America's most wanted man around Kandahar. These troops – until now described as advising the Northern Alliance or liaising with anti-Taliban Pashtuns – are now trying to locate Mr bin Laden amid reports he may be trying to escape to Pakistan.
To help in the hunt, the Pentagon is sending three more AC-130 gunships to Uzbekistan to complement six gunships that have flown inside Afghanistan from Oman. They are slow and heavily armed turbo-prop aircraft that are often used to support US special forces.
Military strategists in Washington and London privately admit they relied too much on technical intelligence in the past and more effort is now being put on human intelligence-gathering on the ground.
US Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft are dropping leaflets in Pashtu pledging $25m (£17m) in rewards for information on the whereabouts of Mr bin Laden and his coterie. The air drops come amid reports that several Taliban leaders had offered to deliver him in return for about $5m.
Military officials believe, however, that Mr bin Laden's whereabouts would be known only by al-Qa'ida members.
The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, told The New York Times that Mr bin Laden may have access to a helicopter with which he may try to escape to supporters in north-east Pakistan. Pakistan has moved troops and tanks to that border to repel such a move.
"My guess is that what he'd probably do is take a helicopter down one of those valleys that we couldn't pick up and pop over to some part of the country where there is an airfield and have a plane waiting for him," said Mr Rumsfeld.
US and British liaison officers are trying to stop the Northern Alliance summarily executing al-Qa'ida prisoners. The captives will be offered their lives, money and passage into Pakistan in return for information, defence sources said. Interrogation teams are now at Kandahar and Kunduz, where many al-Qa'ida fighters may be captured.
Some 150 US and British special forces personnel are believed to be involved in the search for al-Qa'ida leaders and checkpoints have been set up with Northern Alliance forces along routes which the fugitives may take to flee across the border into Pakistan.
Officials in Washington say Mr bin Laden has been moving between hideouts. There have been reports, some with alleged sightings, of him in Nangarhar, south-east of Kabul; mountains in Oruzgan; outside Jalalabad; the remote and icy Wakhan corridor in the north-east, and Paktia, east of Kandahar.
The Pakistani army's chief spokesman, Major-General Rashid Qureshi, said its forces were on alert on stretches of the frontier. But in response to persistent rumours that Mr bin Laden and his lieutenants are already across the border, US and Pakistani officials are offering large bribes to Pashtun tribal leaders for information.
Mr bin Laden's escape into Pakistan would be a serious problem for the Allies. Pakistan is supposedly a firm ally in the so-called war on terrorism, which should put Mr bin Laden within the grasp of the US. But the remit of General Pervez Musharraf's regime does not run far in the tribal frontier areas, and capturing him will not be easy. A Western operation against him would be very risky in volatile Pakistan.Reuse content