KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's interim leader promised yesterday that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar will be tracked down, even as reports said the cleric may have eluded capture and fled to another province.
Meanwhile, two members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday that officials are beginning to believe that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has fled Afghanistan, possibly for Pakistan.
Visiting an orphanage in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said Omar, America's most wanted man after bin Laden, will be taken into custody.
"We are looking for him, and we will arrest him," Karzai said.
Omar appeared to have eluded capture in Baghran, in mountainous central Afghanistan, where government officials claimed a few days ago he was surrounded by anti-Taliban forces negotiating his surrender. Omar's close associate, Abdul Wahid, is the tribal chief there.
But Wahid told Knight Ridder Newspapers that Omar isn't in his area. A former Taliban commander, he said his people's code of honor would not allow him to protect the interests of one individual over those of the entire tribe.
Reports from some former Taliban soldiers say Omar and his former intelligence chief, Abdul Razzak, may be in Zabul province, north of Kandahar.
Sen. John Edwards, traveling with other senators in the region, told Fox News Sunday that Uzbekistan's military intelligence service believes bin Laden has crossed into Pakistan. Uzbekistan, like Pakistan, borders Afghanistan and has been a U.S. ally in the military campaign.
"I fully expect the Pakistanis will do everything they can to help us locate bin Laden," said Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Graham said bin Laden and other top officials probably have escaped Afghanistan, but no one is certain.
"Increasingly, as our efforts to get them in Afghanistan have been futile, there is a greater sense that they have, in fact, escaped and are probably in one of those tribal territories just over the border into Pakistan," Graham, a Florida Democrat, said on ABC's This Week.
The United States hopes a pair of high-profile prisoners will provide valuable intelligence about bin Laden's al-Qaida network, blamed for the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, and the radical Taliban movement that gave it a base of operations.
American officials said the highest-ranking Taliban official in U.S. custody - former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef - has been moved to a U.S. warship in the Arabian Sea.
Zaeef probably was the best-known face of the Taliban, giving daily news conferences at his embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, during the height of the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rejected his application for refugee status.
Ibn Al-Shayk al-Libi, who ran al-Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was transferred Saturday from anti-Taliban forces to U.S. authorities at Kandahar airport, controlled by U.S. Marines.
Marine Lt. James Jarvis said 25 new prisoners arrived Saturday night in Kandahar from Pakistan, where they were captured while trying to flee. They were being interrogated.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported yesterday that U.S. forces and their Afghan allies, backed by airstrikes, were carrying out operations in the Spinghar mountain range of eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad, where al-Qaida holdouts were suspected to be hiding. It said 40 were handed over to the Americans.
Also yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman said in Washington that about 1,500 U.S. troops are bound for the Navy base in Cuba to build and guard a maximum-security prison for al-Qaida and Taliban detainees.
Most of those troops are Army military police from Fort Hood, Texas, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis. About 1,000 began deploying yesterday. As many as 2,000 prisoners eventually may be housed at the Guantanamo Bay base, Davis said.