KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The next time Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar appears before the Afghan people, it may very well be in chains.
Afghanistan's interim leader, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, vowed that the one-time ruler of the country would be tracked down and arrested.
Karzai made his promise after Afghan officials said Omar appeared to have eluded capture once again — this time in Baghran, a mountainous region in central Afghanistan where officials claimed a few days ago that he was surrounded by anti-Taliban forces negotiating his surrender.
Visiting an orphanage in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Karzai said Omar, a one-eyed cleric who after Usama bin Laden is the world's most wanted man, would be taken into custody.
"We are looking for him, and we will arrest him," he said.
Capturing Omar is proving increasingly difficult. He had been believed to be hiding in Baghran in Helmand province, where his close associate, Abdul Wahid, is the tribal chief.
Afghan officials say they now believe he has probably fled the area. Reports from some former Taliban soldiers say Omar and his former intelligence chief, Abdul Razzak, may be in Zabul province, north of Kandahar. Bin Laden's whereabouts are also unknown.
But the United States is hoping to get some leads of its own. Its gumshoe work includes a pair of high-profile prisoners who might be able to provide valuable intelligence about the Al Qaeda terrorist network and the scattered Taliban militia.
Among the pair is a major prize — the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, now in U.S. custody on a naval ship in the Arabian Sea, Marine Lt. James Jarvis said at a news briefing at the Marine-controlled Kandahar airport.
Zaeef was probably 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 to topple the extremist Islamic regime.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees rejected his application for refugee status. Pakistan, the Taliban's strongest supporter before the Sept. 11 attacks, said Zaeef was no longer protected by diplomatic immunity after the Taliban government fell.
The other half of the golden pair is Ibn Al-Shayk al-Libi, who ran Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. He was transferred Saturday from anti-Taliban forces to U.S. authorities at Kandahar airport, which is controlled by the Marines.
How useful they can be depends on how convincing their interrogators are, experts said.
"The big question, of course, is: Will they talk?" former Central Intelligence Agency terrorism analyst Stan Beddington said. "If they are able to talk, I have no doubt whatsoever they will give a lot of information, particularly in the search for bin Laden."
But there are plenty of smaller fish to fry. Twenty-five new prisoners arrived Saturday night in Kandahar from Pakistan, where they were trying to escape U.S. and U.S. allied forces, Jarvis said. That brings the total number of prisoners to 300 now being questioned about Al Qaeda forces in the area.
"We are looking for things we can act upon," Jarvis said. "We remain active in our quest to [uncover] Al Qaida and Taliban" warriors.
And there's hard evidence the U.S. can use as well. Last week, Marines scoured a former Al Qaeda training camp about 60 miles west of Kandahar. They found documents on weapons systems, chemical formulae for explosives and papers on how to destroy aircraft.
President Bush said Saturday that terrorists cannot hide forever.
"They think they can run, they think they can hide, because they think this country's soft and impatient," Bush said. "But they're gonna continue to learn the terrible lesson that says don't mess with America."
Finding Omar, bin Laden or anyone else in the Central Asian country will prove extremely difficult. Afghanistan is almost as big as Texas and is criss-crossed by mountain ranges with caves and tunnels deep within, remnants of the U.S.-backed insurgency against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
In other developments:
• A British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, reported that three men claiming to be British citizens were captured at Tora Bora, a mountain stronghold of Al Qaeda and Taliban die-hards that U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan forces overran last month.
Two, identified as Shakir Abdul Rahim and Nabil Said, were reported to be under interrogation in Kabul. The third, identified as Mohammed Amin, was too badly wounded to be questioned. They are believed to be of Saudi, Indian and Pakistani extraction.
• The Saudi newspaper Okaz quoted Pakistani Interior Minister Moin Haidar as saying that Pakistan has recently detained 240 Saudis and will extradite any who are believed to be affiliated with bin Laden to the United States. They were said to have entered Pakistan from Tora Bora and Afghan cities in recent weeks. The newspaper said they were being questioned by U.S. and Pakistani investigators.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.