TORA BORA, Afghanistan – The search for Usama bin Laden and members of his Al Qaeda terrorist group continued in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday, as reports filtered in from Pakistan that the accused terror leader might be dead.
The Pakistan Observer relayed a report from an unnamed Taliban leader who said bin Laden died of a chronic lung infection in the Tora Bora area in mid-December and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Neither American nor Afghan officials had yet to comment on their quarry's convenient reported demise.
Kenton Keith, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, did say Wednesday that military action would continue as pockets of resistance remain, mostly in eastern Afghanistan.
"The job isn't finished," Keith said at a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan.
About 500 Marines were placed on high alert and were expected to join the cave-to-cave search of the area currently being conducted by U.S. and British special forces and their local Pashtun tribal allies. Pashtun commanders say they have searched most of the caves since gaining control of the complex last week.
The primary focus, he said, was Taliban leaders and senior Al Qaeda members.
"Some of these individuals have been accounted for, but others are either in hiding, on the run or holed up in one of the remaining pockets of resistance," Keith said. "Interrogation of captives and the investigation of former hiding places will bring some clarification over the coming days.
In Kabul, the interim Afghan administration was to hold a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, its second since Saturday's inauguration. The defense and interior ministers and the security chief prepared reports on the security situation in the capital and elsewhere.
Other Cabinet ministers spent recent days assessing the poor conditions they inherited — and the intimidating tasks ahead.
"This is one of the biggest jobs of this new government. The scale of the job is frightening," Education Minister Rassool Amin said while visiting his dilapidated ministry. "We are beginning from nothing, from less than nothing."
Armed militiamen were still wandering the streets Wednesday morning, despite a Bonn agreement requirement that all soldiers leave Kabul after the arrival of international peacekeepers. A British delegation landed last week.
On Monday, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai appointed the powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as deputy defense minister, one of the new administration's most important compromises to date.
Dostum, whose private army captured and still controls the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, had been upset because the key ministries of defense, foreign affairs and the interior were awarded to ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir valley.
Karzai, a member of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, called Dostum's appointment "the first step toward a national army."
The Soviet-trained Dostum, who fought alongside the Russians during the 1980s and switched sides only as the communist regime fell in 1992, is renowned for his ruthlessness and unpredictability.
During the chaotic 1992-96 rule of the various factions that eventually united against the Taliban to form the Northern Alliance, Dostum fired rockets at his sometime allies in Kabul and even bombed the city with fighter jets left by the Soviets after they withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Later, Dostum gained notoriety for executing one of his own soldiers by strapping the man to the treads of a tank, which then drove around a large courtyard.
In other developments:
• Pashtun forces in charge of Kandahar were still trying to control several Arab Al Qaeda fighters who have holed themselves up in a hospital prison ward, threatening to detonate grenades if anyone tried to arrest them. The Arabs were brought to the hospital by their Taliban allies before the city fell earlier this month.
• Anti-Taliban forces on Sunday arrested Awal Gul, an Afghan commander who was instrumental in convincing Taliban commanders to surrender the area around Jalalabad, for alleged ties to Al Qaeda, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. It was unclear whether Gul was given to U.S. forces.
• Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, whose country has close historic ties to Afghanistan, especially with the Uzbek and Turkmen minorities, said in a letter sent Tuesday to Karzai that his nation was ready to give every kind of help toward building national army and police forces in Afghanistan.
• An unnamed Western diplomat said the United States has asked Yemen to allow U.S. Marines to take part in what has been a deadly hunt for Al Qaeda members. The source said the United States also wants to set up a joint task force in Yemen that would include officials from the CIA and other agencies. The U.S. Embassy in Yemen was closed Tuesday for Christmas, and a Pentagon duty officer did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
• More than 500 female refugees, including former judges, doctors and government officials, gathered in Peshawar, Pakistan, to discuss their roles in the new Afghanistan. They approved resolutions to be presented to Karzai, including calls for equal rights, full participation in drafting a constitution and the rights to education and land ownership.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.