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Hunt for Osama Bin Laden Intensifies

Dozens of additional Special Operations are in the north as well as in a narrowing band of mountains near Kandahar, where intelligence reports suggest Osama bin Laden is most likely to be, defense officials said.

In areas still under Taliban control, commandos are searching for top lieutenants and non-Afghan fighters who are tied both to the Taliban leadership and the al-Qaida terrorist group.

The Bush administration hopes covert action and a $25 million reward will flush bin Laden out of his hiding place so that American soldiers don’t have to go into caves and tunnels to find him.

Pressure is mounting outside the city of Kandahar, where American Special Forces are bombarding suspected command posts, firing on enemy vehicles and sealing off roads by blowing up bridges.

“[Kandahar] is apparently at the moment still a standoff…There are southern tribes that are applying pressure and engaged in discussions [with the Taliban], and there’s firing and the U.S., coalition forces, are providing some air support,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters today.

Rumsfeld stated that the U.S. will not support any effort to allow Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, to escape from Kandahar.

Last Friday, Mullah Omar had announced the Taliban would surrender Kandahar to two former mujahadeen Afghans. His brother told the Afghan Islamic Press agency today, however, that Omar would remain in Kandahar as the supreme ruler after Omar had a dream predicting he should be Afghanistan’s ruler until his death.

Rumsfeld said he is also opposed any deal with forces holding out in the northern city of Kunduz, where he said the fierceness of the fighting suggested they were not Afghans but members of al-Qaida, the terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden, or people from other countries who have been supporting the Taliban or al-Qaida.

Nearly 10,000 mostly Arab, Chechen, and Palestinian Islamic militants are reportedly bunkered down within Kunduz while U.S. jets continued air strikes near the city and Northern Alliance troops surrounded the city.

The Northern Alliance has initiated a surrender for Afghan Taliban supporters, but refused to peacefully permit the safe passage of non-Afghan militants in the city.

Bombers also struck alleged underground bunkers to the east and southeast of Kabul, near Gardez. Although the Taliban allegedly left Gardez, Pentagon officials say they are searching for new al-Qaida underground enclaves and other “targets of opportunity.”

Rebuilding the Afghan government

Last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to form a two-year interim government comprised of several Afghan ethnic groups protected by a multinational security team, but several cities have established leaders in the interum.

On Thursday, the Northern Alliance expelled Taliban forces from Jalalabad, a northeastern city near the Pakistani border. The New York Times today reported that the city has installed an interim ruling coalition and that fighting has ceased.

Mazar-e-Sharif fell after two-weeks of intense fighting between Northern Alliance and Taliban troops. According to the Northern Alliance, all 300 Taliban troops reportedly died in the final battle over Mazar-e-Sharif and denied a U.N. report of summary Taliban executions.

Over the weekend, the leaders of the Shi’ite fighters in northern Afghanistan formed an interim general council comprised of the three main ethnic groups in the region.

Despite the fragmentation, the United Nations has begun to persuade the Northern Alliance and other Afghan groups to participate in forming a multi-ethnic government for Afghanistan.

Northern Alliance leaders in Kabul agreed to meet with a team of U.N. negotiators, led by Francesco Vendrell, to arrange a plan for future power-sharing between groups.

The head of the Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who served as Afghan president before the Taliban took control and hopes to govern Kabul, recently conceded to U.N. wishes to meet with U.N. negotiators and other Afghan leaders in Europe and draft a power-sharing agreement for the future Afghan government.