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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 12:23 GMT
Net closes on Bin Laden
With elite units of British and American forces scouring the mountains and caves of southern and eastern Afghanistan, Washington is sounding increasingly confident that Osama Bin Laden will be captured.

Despite reports that Bin Laden may have escaped to neighbouring Pakistan, where he has many sympathisers in the Pashtun tribal areas, the US believes the Saudi-born fugitive is still in Afghanistan.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden: 'Not in Taleban-controlled region'
The search appears to focusing in the mountains surrounding the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar, but there are conflicting reports about his location within the province.

Taleban defectors and prisoners are said to be providing intelligence on Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network and the US hopes that, with a $25m reward on his head, they will eventually be given the information they need.

Meanwhile, more details are emerging about allied operations on the ground, with reports of clandestine CIA combat units working side by side with British SAS troops and US special forces.

Hiding places

American officials say Bin Laden's options have been greatly reduced with the retreat of the Taleban and the military presence on the ground.

The last confirmed sighting was 10 days ago, when he was interviewed by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir somewhere north of Kabul, probably near Jalalabad.

Mohammed Atef
The US says it has killed al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef
But Mr Mir believes he was only taken there as a ruse to confuse Bin Laden's pursuers, but that he is probably in the south.

The UK's Sunday Times newspaper quoted unnamed defence sources as saying the search had been narrowed down to a hilly area of just 80 square kilometres (50 square miles) in south-eastern Afghanistan.

But the Northern Alliance said it had information that Bin Laden was 120km east of Kandahar City, in Maruf, while Gul Agha, a Pashtun anti-Taleban leader who is fighting in the area, said that if Bin Laden was in the province, it was in the south-west.

For its part, the Taleban said all they knew was that Bin Laden was no longer in territory under their control.

Last week, it was thought Bin Laden might be hiding in the mountains of Uruzgan province, but later reports suggest he was dislodged when the Taleban fled the area.

Another report suggested he could be hiding near the city of Khost, after a geologist said rocks seen in a video released by Bin Laden where typical of the area.

'Secret' units

The US bombing continues, but observers believe the new phase of the war will consist of more targeted air strikes and counter-guerrilla operations.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has had secret combat units in Afghanistan since 27 September.

These units are said to work with Predator drone aircraft to locate their targets.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell would not confirm the report, but praised the CIA for its work alongside "our military forces that are inside Afghanistan".

Mountain search

American and British special forces have been deployed in the Kandahar area to block off escape routes and engage the enemy.

Refugees fleeing the Taleban homeland spoke of Western soldiers searching for Bin Laden in the mountains and questioning deserters.

Dollar bills
The US has offered $25m for the capture of Bin Laden
The special forces are thought to have been assigned small areas to search for evidence of Bin Laden's presence.

But criticisms of the campaign are being voiced in Washington, with Air Force sources speaking of missed opportunities for pilots to fire on Taleban and al-Qaeda leaders because of Pentagon fears of causing civilian casualties.

But the US military says its tactics have so far proved successful.

It has already killed several al-Qaeda leaders in raids on Kabul and Kandahar, it says, and Bin Laden is "in very great danger" of being killed or captured.

See also:

18 Nov 01 | South Asia
Hunt 'closing in' on Bin Laden
14 Nov 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden 'safe inside Afghanistan'
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