Bin Laden hunt intensifies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The United States stepped up its efforts to persuade the people of Afghanistan to turn over Osama bin Laden as U.S. military aircraft began broadcasting a new radio message into the country announcing a $25 million cash reward for information leading to his location or capture.

The radio broadcasts, which also identified other leaders of bin Laden's al-Qaida organization thought to be hiding in Afghanistan, are the latest elements of a U.S. strategy to rely heavily on anti-Taliban rebels and other Afghans to help reveal the whereabouts of bin Laden, a Saudi exile.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld made it clear yesterday that U.S. Special Forces soldiers were not planning to mount a cave-by-cave hunt for bin Laden but would continue to apply pressure by setting up roadblocks and gathering intelligence.

He suggested that the United States would rely more heavily on bombing raids and anti-Taliban Afghan forces in the hunt.

Four foreign journalists were shot yesterday on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, the capital.

Hundreds of Egyptians and other Arabs who are part of bin Laden's network are thought to be inside Afghanistan. Many of them are among the estimated 3,000 foreign fighters besieged in the northeastern Afghan city of Kunduz, where they are surrounded by about 30,000 Northern Alliance troops.

Several hundred Pakistani fighters, including relatives of some powerful clerics, who are among the thousands who joined the Taliban in recent years are also believed to have sought refuge in Kunduz, a Pakistani intelligence official said.

Saving them could improve the strained relations between Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and his country's hard-line religious parties, which have opposed his assistance to the United States.

Defense Department officials said that U.S. warplanes carried out heavy strikes yesterday around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and Rumsfeld said the regime's leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, would not be allowed to negotiate his escape from the city.

Rumsfeld made it clear that Omar could surrender and be taken prisoner or, presumably, die in combat, but that seeking asylum in a foreign country or receiving amnesty within Afghanistan would not be acceptable to the United States.

In recent days the U.S. bombing campaign has begun to pay dividends in the efforts to destroy the al-Qaida leadership, apparently increasing the Pentagon's confidence that it can track down bin Laden without placing large numbers of U.S. ground forces on missions with a high risk of casualties.

U.S. intelligence officials believe that Mohammed Atef, al-Qaida's chief of military operations and a potential successor to bin Laden, was killed in a bombing raid last week. The officials said yesterday that new intelligence reports received over the weekend indicate that he was killed in a raid on a building near Kabul Nov. 13, rather than later in the week as initially believed.

The building was a target because U.S. intelligence believed it housed a large group of al-Qaida members. About 50 al-Qaida officials were in the building and are presumed to have been killed, U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday.

U.S. intelligence and military officials believe that bin Laden was not in the building but that he is in southeastern Afghanistan, hiding in the rural area with some of his lieutenants and security forces.

There is no evidence that he has tried to flee Afghanistan. A Pentagon official said a psychological profile of bin Laden drafted after Sept. 11 predicted that, based on his past behavior, he would not try to flee the country and go into hiding but would make a final stand with a loyal band of bodyguards.

A former U.S. law enforcement official who has been involved in investigating bin Laden over much of the past decade said the search has narrowed to an area of 30 square miles in the district of Maruf, about 100 miles east of Kandahar.

"Nobody wants him alive," the former official said. "The United States doesn't want him captured alive, his own people don't want him captured alive and bin Laden himself decided long ago that he wouldn't be captured alive. He's a smart enough man to know that he has no options."

He said the United States would not need bin Laden's body to claim victory. "His silence will be enough."

The American radio messages about the reward, broadcast into Afghanistan by an airborne Special Operations forces radio station aboard an EC-130 aircraft code-named Commando Solo, began Sunday night.

They called on the people of Afghanistan to "drive out the foreign terrorists" and promised cash rewards for information on the location of bin Laden and eight other al-Qaida leaders - indicating that the United States has gathered more information on the identities of al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan than it has previously revealed.

In addition to bin Laden and his top lieutenants, Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Zubaydah, the broadcast identifies several other men believed to be hiding in Afghanistan after playing major roles in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000, and the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The group includes Abdu al Nashri, suspected of helping plan the Cole bombing; al Gaith Abu Yousef, an al-Qaida leader suspected of playing a role in the Sept. 11 attacks; Fazul Abdullah and Saleh Abdullab, suspected of involvement in the embassy bombings; and Saif al Adel Makkawi, a senior aide to bin Laden.

The broadcast also identifies Abu Hafs, an alias for Mohammed Atef. It appears that the script was written before the reports of his death.

In addition to the radio broadcasts, the Pentagon has begun dropping thousands of leaflets in Afghanistan calling for help from the Afghans in hunting bin Laden. About 10,000 leaflets were dropped last night in the area of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, and more will be dropped in other regions, officials said.

Rumsfeld said yesterday that he hoped the cash rewards would persuade Afghans to "begin crawling through those tunnels and caves looking for the bad folks."

Pentagon officials said that Special Operations forces were contributing in two ways to the hunt for bin Laden. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, are working as liaison to the anti-Taliban forces, helping with providing supplies and weapons and calling in airstrikes. They serve as the conduits for intelligence sharing between the United States and the opposition forces.

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