Defector may point way to bin Laden
FROM MARTIN FLETCHER IN WASHINGTON AND DANIEL MCGRORY
THE defection of a Taleban intelligence chief in Kabul could provide the allies with the location of Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

Haji Mullah Khaksar, the Deputy Interior Minister, stayed behind in his official residence in the capital and was said to have switched sides.

US and British special forces want to speak to Khaksar, who helped to set up the Taleban’s intelligence operation in 1996. He almost certainly knows where the al-Qaeda high command, and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taleban’s supreme leader, are hiding.

Khaksar, who is regarded as one of the more moderate Taleban figures, has not been arrested or harmed by the Northern Alliance, reinforcing the belief that he is co-operating fully. Described as a close confidant of Mullah Omar, he could provide up to date information on safe houses, bunkers, communication networks and escape routes.

His defection will further strain relations between bin Laden and the Taleban. Radio intercepts are said to reflect al-Qaeda’s anger at their allies’ retreat, while the Taleban has berated bin Laden for not deploying his better-trained fighters.

A number of senior al-Qaeda and Taleban figures were killed this week when two safe houses in Kabul and Kandahar, identified by electronic surveillance and local spies, were flattened by missile strikes. It is believed that neither bin Laden nor Mullah Omar was among the dead. But General Tommy Franks, who is leading the military campaign, said: “We are tightening the noose. It is a matter of time.”

American officials believe that bin Laden is on the move with a reduced entourage of very loyal followers, led by his handpicked Arab, Chechen and Pakistani bodyguards. Special forces teams have been warned that up to 500 of his loyal fighters will die rather than surrender.

More than 100 American commandos are now on the ground in southern Afghanistan alongside SAS troops. They are setting up roadblocks and other operations in the hope of catching bin Laden associates. “They are trying to destroy the bad guys’ capabilities — and them for that matter,” said General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Other US special forces are interviewing captured Taleban commanders. They are trying to find Taleban guides, interpreters and supply officers, on whom bin Laden’s Arab recruits relied. The Arabs are feared by the Taleban and loathed by local tribesmen so are more likely to be betrayed.

Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, said: “Money will talk.” He suggested that bin Laden could try to flee Afghanistan by helicopter. “My guess is what he’d probably do is take a helicopter down one of those valleys that we couldn’t pick up and pop over to some part of the country where there is an airfield and have a plane waiting for him,” Mr Rumsfeld told The New York Times.

Three quarters of the Taleban’s helicopter fleet has been destroyed, but a few have probably been hidden and are very difficult to detect if flown close to the ground in mountainous terrain.

He was speaking as America and Britain threw their resources into the hunt for the terrorist. Air raids will now be concentrated on locations where he has built a number of subterranean bunkers: in the hills near Jalalabad; in the Khost mountains near Jagi Maydan in Paktia Province; even the deserts of Helmand.

If bin Laden’s headquarters is identified, the probable response is for bombers to pulverise the area while special forces rehearse a ground attack. Teams of elite American troops are combing abandoned caves, tunnels and buildings for maps or other documents that might betray bin Laden’s whereabouts. “Our troops on the ground are on the hunt,” President Bush said.

Aircraft are searching with heat detectors and dropping leaflets advertising the $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The Wall Street Journal reported that senior Taleban leaders had unsuccessfully asked the Bush Administration for a pause in the bombing to negotiate a possible handover of bin Laden.

Washington has received signs that bin Laden is running short of the ready cash he needs to buy loyalty and pay for his clandestine moves between hideouts.

One US official said: “They have had some trouble accessing funds or moving funds where they need them. That is causing them some angst, some difficulty.”

Bin Laden’s followers are wondering why he has not released another video message of defiance. They have had to rely on Mullah Abdullah, the Taleban spokesman, who told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press yesterday that he had been in touch with the Taleban HQ in Kandahar and that both Mullah Omar and bin Laden “fight on”.

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