Omar again eludes the U.S.

Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has slipped through the fingers of U.S. and anti-Taliban forces yet again, several sources said Saturday, after nearly a week of reports that the mysterious cleric had finally been cornered.

One security official in the southern Afghan city of Baghran said Omar had sped away on a motorcycle. Another official said he’d never been there at all. The interim Afghan government’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Omar Samad, said the former ruler might have moved through the area in recent days but had never settled in.

"It doesn’t matter to us whether he escaped on a motorbike, on a bike, on a donkey or on foot," Samad said. "The goal is, he needs to be arrested, he needs to be brought to justice."

The hunt for Omar began a month ago after he fled the Taliban regime’s southern stronghold of Kandahar before the city itself fell. Still, as the pursuit of him — like that of Osama bin Laden — grew yet more frustrating Saturday, the United States and coalition countries chalked up several successes in their campaign against the Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

For one thing, the search for Omar, along with pressure by new government leaders in Helmand province, has prompted local warlords to turn over hundreds of large and small arms as well as ammunition to anti-Taliban forces, officials here said.

Pakistan, meanwhile, handed over Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, to U.S. forces somewhere along the border with Pakistan Saturday, U.S. and Afghan officials said. The bespectacled Zaeef, who as spokesman for the Taliban became the face of the movement to the world after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, is now the highest-ranking Taliban official in U.S. custody.

Zaeef had requested asylum in Pakistan, but his request was rejected, and he was technically deported back to Afghanistan — where U.S. forces were waiting.

Earlier, U.S. forces also arrested the highest-ranking al-Qaida member captured since the war began, Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi. Al-Libi, like Zaeef, was being held in southern Afghanistan Saturday along with about 300 other prisoners. The two men are expected to be interrogated by agents seeking information on the whereabouts of bin Laden, Omar and other al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.

At a news briefing Saturday night, Samad, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, offered condolences on behalf of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai to the family of Army Special Forces soldier Nathan Chapman, 31, a sergeant first class who a day earlier became the first U.S. serviceman killed in action in Afghanistan. He died during a firefight in the eastern province of Paktia.

Samad also reiterated the interim government’s concern about reported civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes, the latest in the village of Qalaye Niazi, also in Paktia province. The strike may have killed as many as 52 people, according to the United Nations, though it’s unclear how many of them were civilians and how many al-Qaida or Taliban fighters.

Samad suggested strongly that the United States had legitimate targets in the village, including an al-Qaida ammunition dump — the first such concession by the government here.

"The enemy is a tricky enemy, and they … sometimes use the civilian population as a shelter and even take them hostage," Samad said.

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