KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Marines took custody of the chief of Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, while the Afghan government said yesterday that it appeared former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had escaped forces penning him in.
Meanwhile, the United States took custody of the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. Abdul Salaam Zaeef, was flown to Bataan for questioning and will be detained there, The New York Times reported.
The Afghan foreign minister and other officials have said in recent days that Omar - Washington's most-wanted man after bin Laden - was surrounded by anti-Taliban troops near the town of Baghran in the central Afghan mountains.
But a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Omar Samad, said yesterday that it was highly likely Omar had escaped.
"I have read reports that he may have fled on a motorbike," Samad said. "We believe with all the publicity that has been given to his stay in Baghran in the past few days that it is inconceivable he would stay there."
The Taliban leader has longtime support in the Baghran region, which could make it difficult for anyone to hand him over. He also survived the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when resistance fighters learned never to stay long in one place.
Samad said some Taliban around Baghran had surrendered in the previous 24 hours but gave no figures.
The United States had never confirmed that Omar was in Baghran. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said Friday there were "indications" the Taliban leader was in that area but said U.S. officials did not know where he was for sure.
President Bush said yesterday that the conflict in Afghanistan was in "a dangerous phase" with U.S. special forces hunting terrorist leaders cave by cave on treacherous terrain. In a speech in Ontario, Calif., he expressed his condolences to the family of Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, an Army special forces soldier killed in an ambush Friday.
U.S. troops have been searching Taliban and al-Qaida compounds, caves and other positions in the southern deserts around the city of Kandahar and the eastern mountains for clues to tracking the remnants of the two groups and their leadership.
At the same time, the United States has been taking custody of key Taliban and al-Qaida figures for interrogation.
Ibn Al-Shayk al-Libi, who ran al-Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was transferred from the custody of anti-Taliban forces to a U.S. Marine base at the Kandahar airport. He is believed to be the highest-level lieutenant of bin Laden taken into U.S. detention so far.
Marine Lt. James Jarvis told a news briefing that al-Libi was eventually expected "to be rotated out of here," but did not say when. One destination could be Guantanomo, the U.S. military base in Cuba being transformed into a detention center for prisoners from Afghanistan.
Al-Libi was handed over by Pakistan, where scores of al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers are believed to be hiding, and was among 25 prisoners who arrived yesterday in Kandahar from Pakistan or from Shebergan in northern Afghanistan.
Pakistan said Zaeef was deported to Afghanistan after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office turned down his application for refugee status.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Marines, who will soon hand over Kandahar airport to the Army's 101st Airborne Division, are increasing patrols "day and night" to improve security for flights, officials said.
Flights come only at night. Humanitarian flights will eventually fly into Kandahar, but U.S. forces want to clean out possible pockets of Taliban or al-Qaida loyalists that might be within firing range.
"There are still surface-to-air threats around the airport," Jarvis said. "We can see small things, for example, muzzle flashes. ... It just takes a lone guy with a Stinger hiding out and biding his time. We're very concerned with a scenario like that."
In other developments: