December 7, 2001
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Osama, Omar still elude their seekers

Shyam Bhatia in Kabul

The war in Afghanistan is effectively over and the Taliban have been defeated. But there is no sign of the two most wanted men, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

As Taliban fighters started handing in their weapons following the surrender of Kandahar on Friday, Afghanistan's prime minister-designate Hamid Karzai declared that Omar had fled the area and could not be traced.

The surrender of Kandahar was facilitated by Karzai's announcement on Thursday of amnesty to all Taliban fighters who hand in their weapons.

The amnesty was supposed to also include Omar, but after a warning from United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Kabul's relations with Washington would suffer, Karzai said Omar would be arrested if caught.

"We have expressed [our view] very forcefully to the so-called opposition leaders that are opposing the Taliban," Rumsfeld said. "We want these people punished. There is no freedom medal for Omar."

Rumsfeld's position was supported by visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "Our position all the way along is that the people who have pursued this terrorism and protected the terrorists must be brought to justice," he said.

Karzai responded on Friday, "I have no idea where Mullah Omar is, but of course I want to arrest him. I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice."

He added, "Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan."

Though Taliban fighters are surrendering in Kandahar and surrounding neighbourhoods, bringing the war to a de facto end, political and diplomatic sources in Kabul confirm that sporadic fighting continues in eastern Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network has its cave hideouts.

B-52 bombers of the United States Air Force have been hitting the Tora Bora cave complex with 110kg and 225kg bombs for the past several days. This underground warren was built in 1979-80 with covert assistance from Washington.

There is no sign of Laden, but recent Taliban defectors claim that he and Omar have fled together to an unknown destination. There is speculation that both men may have escaped to Pakistan. Meanwhile, many lower-ranking Taliban fighters are returning to their homes in Afghanistan after handing in their weapons.

United Front spokesman Mohammed Habeel said in a statement that defenders in most of the main caves had surrendered, but Laden had not been found.

"Osama was not in Tora Bora during the past days of fighting. If he had been [there], he has probably slipped into Pakistan," Habeel said.

In Islamabad the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, confirmed the fall of Kandahar and the Taliban's defeat, saying, "I think we should go home."

Meanwhile trouble looms for the interim Afghan administration following criticism of the United Nations-sponsored Bonn accord, which paved the way for the Karzai-led government to be sworn in on December 22.

Ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose forces have been fighting in northern Afghanistan, says his party is not fairly represented in the new political set-up.

Dostum said he wanted the foreign ministry for himself, but had been palmed off with the ministries of agriculture, mining and industry. "We announce our boycott of this government and will not go to Kabul until there is a proper government in place," he said.

Ethnic Pushtoon leader Sayed Ahmad Gilani, who supports ex-king Zahir Shah, declared in Islamabad, "Injustices have been committed in the distribution of ministries. Those who had an important role in the jihad [against the erstwhile Soviet Union] have not been represented.

"Although the new set-up is not so balanced, I still hope the United Nations will form a committee on getting people together for a Loya Jirga (the traditional assembly of tribal elders) so that in later steps things are settled."

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