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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 14:22 GMT
Hunt stepped up for Mullah Omar
Afghan anti-Taleban fighters returning from Tora Bora share a laugh as they hold up a leaflet they found
Bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda members are on the run
Pashtun forces in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar have stepped up their search for the Taleban spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The new effort came as American officials admitted they had lost all trace of Osama Bin Laden, suspected of masterminding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

The newly-appointed Governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha, told the BBC that his forces had arrested up to 80 fighters belonging to Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation and that he had sent out search parties to find Mullah Omar.

Haji Gullalai, an intelligence chief in the former Taleban stronghold, said he believed Mullah Omar was sheltering with some 500 men in a mountain redoubt near the village of Baghran, and that ethnic Pashtun forces were preparing to attack.

He said Mullah Omar would be hanged if caught.

Gul Agha said large numbers of Taleban fighters in Kandahar had handed in their weapons, and the city was now generally calm.

Turning over Taleban

The new governor of Kandahar said he would turn over to the international community any Taleban leaders they captured.

But a spokesman for a militia leader in the eastern Tora Bora mountains said the dozens of al-Qaeda fighters captured there would be handed over to the new interim government and not to any foreign country, the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported.

Taliban fighter (left) being displayed
Captured fighters from Tora Bora were put on show
"We had held talks with the central government of Hamid Karzai and agreed to hand over all the arrested fighters of al-Qaeda to the government," AIP quoted a spokesman for commander Haji Mohammad Zaman, as saying.

"This is the central government and we will hand over the prisoners to them but not to any foreign country."

Sunday saw Mr Zaman claimed victory over al-Qaeda fighters in Tora Bora after two weeks of US air strikes and ground battles.

Search for Bin Laden

US and British special forces are continuing to search the caves of Tora Bora to determine whether al-Qaeda leaders are among 200 bodies found there.

But Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said that the location of Bin Laden was "anybody's guess".

Most wanted men
Ayman al-Zawahri, 50 - Bin Laden's spiritual adviser and doctor
Shaikh Saiid - Bin Laden's brother-in-law and financial chief
Abu Zubaydah - Bin Laden's senior field commander
Saif al-Adel - Bin Laden's security chief
Abu Mohammed al-Masri - ran training camps in Afghanistan
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith - al-Qaeda's nominal spokesman

Admiral Stufflebeem said that some senior Taleban officials had escaped capture by offering opposition commanders weapons and territory in return for freedom.

The US Defense Department said its forces were interrogating hundreds of prisoners held by Afghan opposition forces, and that it would seek custody of certain al-Qaeda members.

Many of Bin Laden's senior lieutenants are believed to be still in Afghanistan, although some may have escaped to Pakistan or elsewhere.

At least three are known to have been killed. These are: Mohammed Atef, who was killed in an airstrike near Kabul, and Tariq Anwar al-Sayyid Ahmad and Muhammad Salah, who were killed in another strike near Khowst.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Tora Bora says the weather in the mountains is likely to be wearing down al-Qaeda fighters and making the search easier.

Those still in the mountains have spent a freezing night in the open, with the lower peaks and tree-covered slopes dusted with snow that fell overnight.

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