WASHINGTON – The search for fugitive mullah Mohammed Omar continued on Saturday after the Taliban left Kandahar on Friday, fleeing without a fight but with their weapons.
U.S. forces attempted to block fleeing Taliban with both ground and air forces, according to chief of U.S. Central Command Tommy Franks.
"We have engaged forces who are leaving Kandahar with their weapons," he said Friday from Tampa, Florida.
Some residents, however, reported some Taliban troops did turn in their weapons. Gunfire and looting were reported in some parts, but by nightfall a commander presiding over the transfer of the city said peace had returned. "The process of surrender has been completed and now the city is calm and peaceful," Haji Bashar said.
In the east, American planes bombed mountains surrounding Tora Bora, where tribal commanders – who spotted a tall man on horseback and intercepted radio traffic inquiring about "the sheik" – were increasingly certain Usama bin Laden was hiding.
The Taliban did not follow through on its promise to defend Kandahar to the death, but instead agreed Thursday to hand their arms over to a tribal leader and surrender the city, which is the Taliban’s birthplace. But when tribal forces moved in Friday to implement the agreement, most of the Taliban had vanished and Omar's whereabouts were unknown, according to the new Afghan interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
After the United States said it would accept no deal allowing the mullah to remain free, Karzai vowed to arrest Omar if the Afghans can find him.
"Of course I want to arrest him," he said. "I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out."
Late Friday, news reports circulated that Omar had been captured — but American and Northern Alliance officials quickly said they could not confirm any of the reports.
"We are aware of the reports that are in the media," said Maj. Ralph Mills of the U.S. Central Command. "If it's true, it is certainly good news."
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ben Owens and Northern alliance spokesman Heron Amin said they were unaware of the reports.
A U.S. official in Washington also said on condition of anonymity that opposition forces were in control of most of Kandahar. But U.S. warplanes bombed areas around the city where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were presumably trying to escape.
U.S. Marines patrolling a road near Kandahar attacked a three-car Taliban convoy early Friday, killing seven people in their first ground combat since setting up base in the desert near Kandahar on Nov. 25.
The Taliban kept Western reporters out of Kandahar and so firsthand reports were impossible. However, residents contacted by telephone said mirthful citizens ran into the streets carrying pictures of Afghanistan's deposed king. Others replaced the Taliban's white flag with Afghanistan's old royal red, black and green ensign.
"The Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan," Karzai said in a satellite telephone interview with The Associated Press.
But pockets of Taliban remained. Among them, according to Franks, a group south of the city of Kunduz, though they are not fighting and are talking with the Northern Alliance.
With the Taliban out of power, the United States is focusing on its remaining objective – capturing bin Laden, suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
In the east, the majestic White Mountains filled with smoke and dust as American jets bombed positions of Arab fighters loyal to bin Laden around his Tora Bora cave complex.
Tribal commanders, aware of the $25 million reward for bin Laden, reported two intriguing bits of information Friday: One group of fighters spotted a man matching descriptions of bin Laden on horseback visiting front-line troops, and another told of intercepted radio traffic in Arabic, inquiring from Kandahar about "the sheik."
"The reply is, ‘The sheik is fine,’" said commander Zein Huddin. He was convinced "the sheik" was none other than bin Laden. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
In other developments:
– Bush, at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, rejected "a truce or a treaty" with any Taliban or terrorist enemy in Afghanistan. "Like all fascists, the terrorists cannot be appeased. They must be defeated. This struggle will not end in a truce or a treaty. It will end in victory for the United States, our friends and for the cause of freedom," he said.
– The head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said in London that a multinational force should be deployed in Kabul "as soon as possible," hopefully before Dec. 22 when the interim government takes power.
– Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said his nation would concentrate on providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and he vowed that no Russian forces would take part in military actions there.
– French President Jacques Chirac praised the fall of Kandahar and said there can be no amnesty for the Taliban. "Now, it has to be decided how the terrorists will pay for their crimes," Chirac said on a visit to Yugoslavia.
The surrender of Kandahar made no mention of bin Laden or the hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters who support him. On Friday, Afghanistan's new ruling body promised to capture foreign Al Qaeda fighters and Taliban leaders and bring them to trial.
"For the people who have on their hands the blood of the Afghan people, there is no general amnesty," Younus Qanooni, the new interior minister, said on a visit to India.
Under the surrender agreement, control of the city was transferred to a tribal council. But one faction under former Kandahar governor Gul Agha has refused to recognize the authority of another under Mullah Naqib Ullah.
Khalid Pashtun, an ally of Agha, told Britain's Channel 4 News that Mullah Naqib Ullah was holding Omar "in a friendly environment."
He also claimed about 250 Arabs were holding out in the southern part of the city. Efforts to contact Mullah Naqib Ullah's faction were unsuccessful.
The South Asian Dispatch Agency, based in Pakistan, quoted Omar's spokesman Syed Tayyab Agha as saying both he and the Taliban chief remained in Kandahar.
"I am here and will remain here until otherwise ordered," Agha was quoted as saying. "As long as Mullah Omar is here, I will be here. Many of our people are still in this city."
Karzai said he believed Omar and what's left of the Taliban and Al Qaeda headed for mountain hide-outs in Zabul province, northeast of Kandahar. An old friend of Karzai's, fellow Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, said the Taliban leader fled the city before the surrender.
Karzai confirmed that chaos had broken out in several areas within Kandahar as a result of the Taliban's flight. He said there was no fighting among rival anti-Taliban forces.
However, residents reported fighting among armed gangs. Speaking by satellite telephone from the city, one resident said men with weapons had set up checkpoints on some main roads.
Pashtun, the spokesman for Agha, called the surrender agreement a sham that allowed the perpetrators of Afghanistan's latest bout of chaos to remain in power. He said Agha's forces moved into Kandahar and seized the governor's house and the army headquarters in fighting with troops of the city's new administration. Two of Agha's fighters were killed, Pashtun said. His report couldn't be confirmed.
And in the area's first report of retribution, Agha's forces said they hanged a man they suspected of participating in the assassination of Abdul Haq, a Pashtun leader killed by the Taliban on Oct. 26 while trying to stir up opposition to the Islamic militia.
Gul-e-Lalai and Kamal Uddin, two of Agha's top commanders, said the man was hanged in the town of Takhta Pull, just south of Kandahar.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.