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The Search for Terrorists in Afghanistan

January 2, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: About 200 U.S. Marines were back at their base in Kandahar today, after scouring 14 buildings in a former Taliban and al-Qaida compound in southern Afghanistan. They recovered small arms and documents during the operation. At the Pentagon, Defense Department officials said the Marines were gathering intelligence information, but were not searching for the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: They were not on a hunt, per se, for Omar, they were out doing survey evaluations. So they are looking at locations and facilities where we had good evidence that there had been previously al-Qaida and Taliban forces, and they’re collecting physical evidence. And maybe another way to put it is, is that we’re casting a relatively wide net to build intelligence.

TOM BEARDEN: Reporters questioned Admiral Stufflebeem and Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke about reports that Afghan leaders were negotiating Omar’s surrender.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: I am aware, and have seen reports of Taliban forces that are negotiating with anti- Taliban forces, specifically with Mr. Karzai and his group, for terms of surrender in the region northwest of Kandahar. But I… I think it’s a leap of faith if we believe that that is on the benefit, or on the behalf of Mullah Omar himself. These are Taliban forces that are looking to negotiate themselves out of a predicament with anti-Taliban forces.

REPORTER: What about Omar, himself? Are you willing… Is the U.S. willing to let him face justice in Afghanistan, or must he be in U.S. hands?

VICTORIA CLARKE, Pentagon Spokeswoman: It has been made very clear that we expect to have control of him. And to go against a little bit what I was saying earlier, from what we have seen from reports from the interim government, from anti-Taliban forces, they understand and have said, “We understand that if we come under control of Omar, he will be turned over to the United States.”

TOM BEARDEN: In Afghanistan, interim foreign minister Abdullah said Osama bin Laden could still be in that country, and might be hiding with the Taliban leader.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: It is most likely that he will be with Mullah Omar, and since we haven’t seen the body, we could say that he is still alive. But there are also some reports from some corners of Afghanistan that he is still around in the southern part of Afghanistan.

TOM BEARDEN: Admiral Stufflebeem was asked about that.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: Well, I have seen those reports that you’re referring to. As the secretary had alluded to, I think last week, the reports are all over the map. And so there is not a preponderance of reports that would allow us to pinpoint a location, because if we had that, well, we’d have him. So it’s still widely varying as to what you hear and what it says. So we don’t put any type of credence in it right now.

TOM BEARDEN: Reporters also asked about reports that U.S. bombs had killed the Taliban’s intelligence chief last week.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: I have heard the reports, but I just can’t confirm it. We just don’t have the evidence that’s proof positive. The strike that occurred on the 26th, on Wednesday, was on the compound that was of the intelligence ministry, Taliban intelligence ministry; good confirmation of that. That intelligence piece had been worked up quite extensively before the strike occurred. Subsequent to that, two days later, north of that compound, a different compound, pro-Taliban forces, not related to this intelligence compound at all. Does that help you?

REPORTER: Any information on who may have been injured or killed in either of those strikes?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM: Well, we know that they were Taliban that were killed. We suspect without confirmation that there were non-Afghans there, as well.

TOM BEARDEN: Meanwhile, an advance team of peacekeepers arrived in Kabul to lay the groundwork for the arrival of 3,500 multinational troops later this month. Turkey today volunteered to lead the peacekeeping force when Great Britain’s three-month mandate expires, but a decision is still pending on which nation will take over leadership.