US examines Afghan weapons sites

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The Independent Online

US experts were investigating more than 40 sites across Afghanistan where al Qaida operatives could have made weapons of mass destruction, as talks between rival Afghan warlords entered a second day.

Samples and papers have been taken from the locations and are now being tested in US laboratories, according to General Tommy Franks, commander in charge of US operations in Afghanistan.

No chemical, nuclear or biological weapons were found, he said. Investigators uncovered materials that could have been used to make them – but they could have also been for fertilisers or conventional explosives.

"We have, indeed, more than 40 places which represent potential for weapons of mass destruction research or things of that sort," said the general.

General Franks also confirmed US efforts to find terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden are concentrating on two areas – the Taliban–held territory around their spiritual capital of Kandahar, and the corridor between Kabul, Jalalabad and the Pakistani border at the Khyber Pass.

In Germany, all sides in the talks on a post–Taliban Afghanistan were today due to hold a joint session with United Nations mediators to speed progress towards an interim administration for the country.

Yesterday the rival factions expressed a common commitment to work for peace, while the Northern Alliance pledged it would not "monopolise" power despite its recent military successes.

Stephen Evans, the British representative in Kabul, said the meeting offered "a real opportunity" for the establishment of a broad–based Afghan government.

The talks include the Northern Alliance, exiles backing former King Mohammed Zaher Shah and two smaller exile groups, representing all major Afghan ethnic groups, including the Pashtun from which the Taliban draws most of its support.

But there was a further indication the war is far from over, as US President George W Bush rejected the International Olympic Committee's request for a military truce during the Winter Olympics next year.

He will instead propose a UN resolution calling for athletes to travel safely to and from the games in Salt Lake City in February.

British and US special forces "advisers" yesterday helped Northern Alliance troops to quell a bloody three–day uprising of pro–Taliban foreigners at a fort near Mazar–e–Sharif.

US Marines also went into combat near Kandahar, seizing an airport near the city to provide a base for operations in southern Afghanistan.

They sent helicopter gunships to follow up an air strike by Navy F–14 Tomcat jets on an armoured convoy of 15 vehicles. During the day, the US troops fired more mortar rounds against Taliban forces.

Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdullah told the Afghan Islamic Press that the regime's one–eyed supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was still in town and in command of his troops.

The Ministry of Defence said four British special forces servicemen wounded in Afghanistan and reported to be receiving treatment at the MoD's Centre for Defence Medicine at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham were making progress.

Meanwhile it emerged yesterday that six bank accounts in the UK containing £7.6 million, which are linked to outlawed organisations including bin Laden's al Qaida network, have been frozen since the September 11 attacks.

Accounts have now been frozen in 130 countries, blocking £43.1 million of terrorist funds, US Treasury Deputy Secretary Kenneth Dam said on a flying visit to London.