US fears cornered mullah could escape again

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The Independent Online

They moved into the village at first light, Afghan fighters in a variety of uniforms, led by US and British special forces, looking for the world's second most wanted man. Every home, every piece of land was searched. At the end the troops hauled away a group of prisoners, but Mullah Mohammed Omar was not among them.

The hunt for Mullah Omar, the semi-literate, one-eyed cleric who became the leader of perhaps the most obscurantist religious group to run a country, is now reaching a climax in the wild hill country of Helmand. Every day rumours sweep through Afghanistan that he has been killed, or captured, or fled to a range of countries from Pakistan to Somalia.

With Osama bin Laden still escaping their grasp, the Americans are concentrating massive efforts in capturing his host, the Mullah. Yesterday's raid, near Baghran, was the result of eight days of intensive intelligence-gathering which had culminated in identifying a triangle of land where Omar could have taken refuge.

The raid on the village, about 110 miles north of Kandahar, would be the first of many over a short period. Having seemingly cornered their quarry, the Americans are deeply worried about giving him the chance to disappear again.

It is not their enemies, but their allies, who they fear may facilitate this. Local warlords in Kandahar have been in talks with tribal leaders in Baghran, and the Taliban commander, Abdul Waheed, the man said to be protecting him, supposedly to arrange the Mullah's surrender. The pattern of negotiations is said to be the classic Afghan one of carrot and cosh – in this case the threat of American air strikes on one hand and bribes on the other.

The Kandahari leadership say they want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. There are up to 1,500 Taliban fighters holed up in the main Baghran stronghold, heavily armed and the most die-hard of what is left of the movement. In any storming, it would be the Afghans and not the Americans who would bear the brunt of the casualties.

American officers are, however, increasingly apprehensive that the talks, which have been dragging on since Monday, are a smokescreen allowing time for the Taliban's spiritual and military leader to escape. Commander Waheed, it is widely rumoured, has been offered generous amnesty terms for his men and cash inducement if he can produce Mullah Omar. The commander is said to have been responsible for splitting the Taliban leader away from Kandahar after the city fell, but Afghan leaders say there is a monetary value on his loyalty.

The Americans are concerned that Commander Waheed may have been offering cash to buy freedom for himself and the cleric, if he is with him.

"They have dollars, rupees, cars and weapons. These people can do anything they want and escape,'' said Haji Shah Mohammed, a tribal leader from Nowzad in Helmand. "We have had both Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders living here. But now they are moving to the south of Baghran, towards Imam-I-Rabat. We don't know if Mullah Omar is among them.''

Another problem has been the sheer confusion of who is offering what deal to whom, as well as the internecine, inter-tribal and inter-clan rivalries and jealousies. Even if Abdul Waheed does want to give up Mullah Omar he is unlikely to do so to the new governor of Helmand, Sher Mohammed. Their feud is said to go back years, and Commander Waheed has accused Commander Mohammed, from the south, of coveting his northern fiefdom.

The confusion can be seen in the statements of Afghan leaders on just one day in Kandahar. Nasrat Ullah, assistant to the city's security chief, stated: "The village where Mullah Omar is staying is surrounded and we are continuing to negotiate.'' His boss, Haji Gullalai, has said he has been personally engaged in the negotiations. But Mohammed Akram, security chief to the US-backed warlord Gul Agha Shirzai, said that while he was sure Mullah Omar is still in Helmand, he was now only "60 per cent certain'' he was in Baghran.

Mr Shirzai's "cabinet" has been bickering over exactly who has been involved in real talks with the Mullah's people – the warlords and their henchmen are aware that whoever secures Mullah Omar will have a very lucrative bargaining chip with the Americans.

Facing such a quagmire, the Americans are determined to press on. They have secured the pledge of Hamid Karzai's interim government that the Mullah would be handed over to them if he surrenders, and they have also made their own contacts with Abdul Waheed.

There remains the little problem of what to do with Mullah Omar if he does end up in American custody. He is not indicted on the 11 September attacks and no other formal charges have been laid against him. If he is tried for war crimes, questions are bound to be asked about the past conduct of Northern Alliance commanders who now sit in the Western-backed Karzai government.

By surrendering, rather than fighting to the death, the one-eyed Mullah would present the US with a difficult problem.

¿ Afghanistan's Interior Minister Mohammad Yunis Qanuni signed a deal on the formation of an international security force for the country with Britain's General John McColl at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday.

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