Mullah Omar 'is captured'
MULLAH MUHAMMAD OMAR was last night apparently being held captive as the Taleban lost control of their spiritual stronghold of Kandahar in a major breakthrough for the American-led coalition.

The Taleban leader was near the city in the custody of a warlord sympathetic to the fundamentalist regime, Khaled Pashtoon, a spokesman for Gul Agha Sherzai, a Kandahar commander, said.

Mr Pashtoon said that Mullah Omar was being held in a “(Taleban)-friendly environment”, but his group would demand that the Taleban Supreme Leader be handed over, probably to the new Afghan government, at a tribal meeting this morning.

Hamid Karzai, the new head of the Afghan interim government said that he did not know the location of Mullah Omar. “But of course I want to arrest him. I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out,” he said.

Mullah Omar’s apparent captivity will boost Western morale at a time when many thought that the goals of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan were not being met. It raises the prospect, however, of tortuous negotiations over a possible trial between the Americans and the new Afghan administration.

The Pentagon said that word of Mullah Omar’s capture was “potentially interesting”. It said, however, that it had no independent verification from US special forces. A spokesman said: “In the absence of that we will tend to see what comes out.”

Mullah Omar’s apparent capture ended a day of confusion, during which it appeared that he might have escaped the grip of the new Afghan administration, and the Americans.

General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, said minutes before initial reports of Mullah Omar’s detention that the Taleban spiritual leader had “vanished”. Correcting himself, he said that he did not know where Mullah Omar was.

Fears were setting in that the anti-Taleban coalition had lost the man without whom, along with Osama bin Laden, the United States cannot claim victory in its war against terrorism.

The coalition was anyway denied an outright victory in Kandahar when thousands of Taleban troops reneged on their surrender promise, slipping out of the stronghold. They are thought to be planning to regroup for a guerrilla war.

US Marines based outside the city tried to cut off the Taleban’s escape routes to the south towards the Pakistan border. In one operation 11 escaping fighters were killed in the first operational clash with US Forces in the region.

An injured Arab fighter who had been captured crossing the border into Pakistan told The Times that his comrades-in-arms would never surrender. “Never. They will never give up. They will fight until death,” the fighter said.

The Arab fighter is believed to have come from Kandahar province and was possibly among those who had been guarding the airport.

Mr Pashtoon told Channel Four News that it was almost impossible to persuade the Arab fighters to surrender. “They are all suicidal,” he said. “They all have hand grenades. If they are caught they will let them off.”

The apparent capture of Mullah Omar did not avert an inquest into how so many Taleban troops had managed to escape a city in which the Pentagon had insisted they were bottled up. Questions were raised about the tactics of Mr Karzai, who arranged for the Taleban surrender to be received by a group of local tribal chiefs led by Mullah Naqibullah, a former Mujahidin leader.

Mr Karzai, who was with his forces about two miles from the city, said that Mullah Naqibullah and his anti-Taleban forces had apparently let the escapees through without challenging them.

“The Taleban ran away with their weapons. Basically they have just run away — the leaders and the soldiers,” Mr Karzai said. “I thought they were coming here to attack us, but they were running away.”

The scrutiny on Mr Karzai will intensify today. Following an American threat to withdraw the offer of billions of dollars of aid for Afghanistan unless Mullah Omar is brought to justice, Mr Karzai toughened his stance. Instead of saying that Mullah Omar could simply renounce his ways, as he had on Thursday, he described him as a fugitive who should be brought to “international justice”.

Outright success in the war remains distant for America, however, and the movement of Taleban troops yesterday set the scene for a guerrilla war that is likely to continue through the winter and beyond. British defence sources said that it was likely the military action would last until the spring.

The bin Laden loyalists who escaped Kandahar could head for the rugged Zabul Province, northeast of the city. Another potential sanctuary would be Islam Dara, a heavily fortified warren of caves in the neighbouring Helmand Province.

The Pentagon estimates that there could be as many as 5,000 al-Qaeda fighters still controlling pockets of territory across the country, around Herat in the north, outside Kabul and now, in increasing numbers, outside Kandahar.

The defence sources said that it would be potentially “very dangerous” to deploy a multinational security force into Afghanistan with so many al-Qaeda fighters still at large. “The obvious targets will be the white-skinned soldiers,” one source said.

There was also concern yesterday about bin Laden’s continued evasion of 2,000 tribesmen who are searching cave complexes around Tora Bora. Mohammad Habeel, a spokesman for the Northern Alliance forces operating in the east of Afghanistan, said that there was no sign of bin Laden and he had probably slipped into Pakistan.

However, defence officials remain convinced that bin Laden remains in Afghanistan and insist that the claims of some local militia to have overrun and searched the cave complex are premature. “The anti-Taleban forces have only cracked the outside of the Tora Bora complex,” one British defence source said.

Haji Kalan Mir, one of the senior commanders of the anti-Taleban forces, said that his soldiers had seen a tall man resembling bin Laden making a visit on horseback to the al-Qaeda frontline positions.

Intercepted radio traffic inquiring in Arabic about “the sheikh” — a title associated with bin Laden — had local commanders even more convinced that bin Laden was in the area.

Asked at 7pm last night whether it was thought that bin Laden was still in Afghanistan, Tony Blair’s spokesman said: “Yes.”