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Saturday, 5 January, 2002, 08:32 GMT
Mullah Omar 'flees on motorbike'
Afghan fighters
Anti-Taleban forces now control the country
Taleban militia leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has escaped from his hideout in southern Afghanistan on a motorbike, according to an Afghan official.

The head of intelligence in Kandahar, Haji Gulalai, told the BBC that all the Taleban sympathisers around the area of Baghran in the Helmand province had surrendered to anti-Taleban forces.

But the whereabouts of Mullah Omar - who apparently escaped with four sympathisers - are not known.

The BBC's Richard Miron, who is in the Afghan capital Kabul, says it has not been confirmed that Mullah Omar was in the Baghran area - and his reported escape adds to confusion about his fate.

The surrender of Taleban sympathisers in the area, who were able to go free after handing over their weapons, was brokered during the last few days in negotiations with local tribal leaders.

Our correspondent says their submission appears to indicate the weakness of the remnants of the Taleban movement in the country.

I want the war against terrorism to continue. This is a pledge we have made to the Afghan people - to free them from terrorism

Hamid Karzai
Earlier, it emerged that an American soldier had been killed in combat in Afghanistan - the first US serviceman to die from hostile fire since the American military campaign that toppled the Taleban regime began nearly three months ago.

He was killed during an exchange of gunfire near the town of Khost in the east of the country, near the border with Pakistan.

The US general in charge of the Afghan campaign, Tommy Franks, said the soldier was part of a special forces team liaising with local tribal forces.

General Franks added that his death showed the dangerous nature of mopping up operations against the Taleban and their allies, Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network.

Bin Laden is accused of masterminding the 11 September suicide attacks on New York and Washington that sparked the US military campaign.

Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, has committed his government to capturing Mullah Omar.

Afghanistan's new leader has promised to hand over Mullah Omar to the US
"We are looking for him, Mullah Omar. He is a criminal of an international standard and he should be delivered. If the US wants him, we will deliver him to the United States," Mr Karzai told the American ABC news.

Mr Karzai also said he supported the continuing bombardment of suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda sites by the US.

"Primarily I want the war against terrorism to continue. This is a pledge we have made to the Afghan people - to free them from terrorism," he said.

But he cautioned: "We want our civilians not to be caught in the middle of fighting between our forces and the terrorists, or the American bombings and terrorism."

Al-Qaeda compound

The US says it is continuing to bomb a suspected al-Qaeda compound in the Khost region, near the border with Pakistan.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported that the air strikes had killed 32 people, quoting witnesses as saying the bombing was so intense that residents had no chance to remove bodies.

The same compound was attacked in August 1998 following the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"It has been a place where the al-Qaeda goes to regroup," said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He declined to describe in detail what triggered the attack, which was launched on Thursday, except to say "activity" had been detected there.

Tribal leaders in Baghran are known to be unhappy about continued American bombing in the area, which they say has led to unnecessary civilian casualties.

The United Nations says it has reliable reports that 52 civilians were killed when US jets hit the Afghan village of Qalaye Niazi last week.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"This is still a mission in it's infancy"
The BBC's Richard Miron
"It is very confusing...very few people know what Mullah Omar looks like"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | South Asia
Taleban prisoners released
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