US Marines comb south for fugitive Bin Laden

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The Independent Online

As armed groups squabbled over control of Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold in Afghanistan, US Marines with photographs of "key terrorists" scoured the lawless south of the country for their principal targets: Osama bin Laden and his Afghan ally, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Hamid Karzai, head of the interim Afghan administration due to take over on 22 December, was reported to be at a meeting in Kandahar yesterday to decide who should take control of the city after the Taliban abandoned control. There was no news, however, on the whereabouts of Mullah Omar, the former regime's reclusive leader, who rarely left Kandahar when he controlled the country.

Mr Karzai pledged yesterday "to deliver Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar to international justice" and asked ordinary Afghans to help in the hunt. Pakistan was reported to have sent helicopters and extra forces to the border to cut off escape routes.

Although they have not entered Kandahar, US forces have moved to block exits from the city and check any Arab travellers against photographs of terror suspects. "We are searching for members of the al-Qa'ida, not regular Taliban soldiers," said Marine Captain Stewart Upton.

In eastern Afghanistan, anti-Taliban and coalition forces climbed into the heights that may conceal Mr bin Laden amid tantalising monitored al-Qa'ida radio reports of the "sheikh" and reported sightings of a "tall man on a horse". American aircraft kept up air strikes on suspected bin Laden caves and hideouts in the Tora Bora region, about 35 miles south of the eastern city of Jalalabad.

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