US step up activity near Kandahar and reopen embassy in Kabul

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The Independent Online

THe United States Marines stepped up their activities across Afghanistan yesterday, hunting for fleeing leaders of Taliban and al-Qa'ida, while America reclaimed its embassy in Kabul.

But a spokesman for the Marines said they would not advance into Kandahar itself. Captain Stewart Upton added: "We are continuing to look for al-Qa'ida and Taliban who still have their weapons. If the Taliban hold their weapons they will die." He said the Marines had moved towards Kandahar to reinforce current operations.

All across southern Afghanistan former Taliban fighters are melting back into the civilian population after giving up their guns and cars. The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is on the run from Kandahar, and US military officials said yesterday they believed he was still in the southern Kandahar area.

In some provinces, negotiations are still going on over the transfer of power.

The US Marines have advanced from Camp Rhino, a desert airstrip outside Kandahar, and have set up a forward base 12 miles from the city. The soldiers manning checkpoints on roads are carrying photographs of men the US wants to detain.

A detention centre has been built at Camp Rhino, but so far it holds only one prisoner, a 20-year-old American from Fairfax, California, called John Walker who had joined the Taliban as a volunteer. He was wounded in the leg in the prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif after he had surrendered.

Seven Taliban were killed by US air strikes when they drove towards an American position at high speed. There were no Marine casualties.

Officials say the Marines are trained to distinguish "friend from foe" but Afghan truck and bus drivers complain that their vehicles have been hit from the air on the road from Herat to Kandahar and Kandahar to Kabul.

Kandahar was reported to be calm yesterday after a deal was brokered by Hamid Kharzai, the new Afghan Prime Minister, between the rival warlords Gul Agha Shirzai and Mullah Naqib Ullah who entered the city after the Taliban surrendered on Friday.

There is a steadily increasing international presence in Kabul. Three Marines are guarding the gate of the US Embassy building which is still scorched from an attack by pro-Taliban demonstrators at the beginning of the crisis. Even a plaque on a wall commemorating the donation of a playing field by a former US envoy had been criss-crossed with a knife. The State Department has sent a small team to assess the damage.

It is still not known when the international security force backed by the United Nations will arrive. Initially some 1,500 to 2,000 men are expected to be stationed in Kabul. They will guard government buildings and oversee the demilitarisation of the capital.

Kabul saw savage fighting during the 1992-96 civil war, but it is calm at the moment because it is completely under the control of the Northern Alliance. Neither the Uzbek nor Hazara militias, which previously fought the Tajik-dominated forces, have any presence in Kabul.

But government ministries hardly exist and have no money. One building, which is part of the health ministry, has no glass in its windows though it is very cold in the city.

The government may even lose the few qualified staff it does have as foreign aid organisations begin to compete for their services.

Some essential parts of the infrastructure can be restored swiftly. The Halo Trust, the UK de-mining charity, is working to open the crucial 2.8km Salang Tunnel through the Hindu Kush mountains so it can at least be used more easily by foot passengers. The tunnel, without which Afghanistan's main north-south road cannot open, was blown up during civil war. As a first stage Halo will ensure that the tunnel has electric light and clear away the worst of the debris, a process which can be completed in under a week.

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