US troops to hunt bin Laden in Pakistan

 

AFGHANISTAN: US troops are to pursue enemy leaders into Pakistan as fears grow that Osama bin Laden and some of his key lieutenants have escaped over the border from Afghanistan.

Gen Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said Pakistan had agreed that US troops can cross the border to work alongside Pakistani troops attempting to follow al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters fleeing Afghanistan.

"We could contact [Pakistan] and say, all right, we are observing people and we are going to follow them into Pakistan," he said in an interview.

This agreement represents a substantial concession by Pakistan's military forces, which have fiercely defended their own extensive patrols of the 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan.

The preparations for expanded US military activity inside Pakistan also reflect a growing concern in intelligence reports that bin Laden escaped across the border after intense air strikes against al-Qaeda caves in the Tora Bora region last month.

But the Afghan Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Abdullah Abdullah, said yesterday bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, were believed to be still in Afghanistan. "At this stage, we are not certain about their location. It is most likely that they are in Afghanistan," he said.

Pentagon officials suggested the manhunt along the border would be conducted as a joint operation with Pakistani troops, involving special operations forces in a co-ordinating role.

US forces yesterday launched air strikes for a fourth day on an al-Qaeda camp at Zhawar Kili in eastern Afghanistan. Nearby, the US blocked the escape of 14 al-Qaeda suspects and detained two fighters.

Meanwhile, three former ministers of the ousted Taliban government have surrendered in Kandahar. A spokesman for the new governor said: "Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us," adding that anyone who surrendered would be eligible for an amnesty, except Mullah Omar.

The ministers were later released but not allowed to move about freely, and a US military spokesman said he expected them to be handed over to the United States.

The interim Afghan leader, Mr Hamid Karzai, was quoted yesterday as saying he regretted the civilian deaths from the US bombing campaign but he would not request an end to the attacks until the fight against terrorism was over.

"In no case will we ask the United States to end the bombing, but ask rather that the fight on our side against terrorism in Afghanistan be conducted to the end," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

"Naturally the civilian deaths are very sad. But there was no alternative to the military engagement up to now."