Negotiation for Omar’s Surrender Underway

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KABUL, Afghanistan ?Negotiations for the surrender of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar were under way in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, and the former ruling militia’s intelligence chief was killed in U.S. bombardment last week, officials said.

Qari Ahmadullah was believed to be the highest Taliban official to be killed in the U.S. led campaign that ousted the hard-line Islamic militia from power in Afghanistan. Abdullah Tawheedi, a deputy intelligence minister for the interim government in Kabul, confirmed Ahmadullah’s death to The Associated Press.

Ahmadullah, 40, had been identified by the U.S.-led coalition as one of the Taliban leaders it was trying to capture. He was among 25 people killed in Naka, in Paktika province, on Dec. 27, when U.S. planes attacked a house where he was staying, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.

According to Raz Mohammed Khan Lunai, Tawheedi’s representative in southeastern Ghazni province, Ahmadullah was killed trying to flee on a motorcycle. Lunai said he witnessed Ahmadullah’s burial in the Ghazni area on Dec. 31.

At the same time, U.S. and Afghan forces were intensifying their hunt for Omar, second to Osama bin Laden on the U.S. list of most wanted terrorist fugitives.

A commander in the anti Taliban forces, Jamal Khan, said his officials had confirmed that Omar was in hiding “somewhere in Baghran,” a mountainous region north of Kandahar.

Afghan military leaders have been negotiating indirectly with Omar for two days through Baghran’s loya jirga, or grand council, of tribal leaders, said Khan, who is a commander for Haji Gulalai, intelligence chief in the southern city of Kandahar.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said he doubted Omar was negotiating to give up. He said an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban fighters holed up near Baghran were negotiating with anti-Taliban forces, “but I think its a leap of faith if we believe that that is on the behalf of Mullah Omar himself.” The United States has in the past rejected any Taliban surrender that allowed Omar to escape prosecution.

A major military operation involving U.S. Marines and anti Taliban soldiers began Monday to capture Omar. American troops in full combat gear were dispatched from the Marine base at Kandahar airport to northern locations near Baghran.

Omar has been in hiding since the fall of the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s last stronghold, in early December.

Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah said Wednesday that his government did not know where Omar was.

“I think Mullah Omar is still hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. His whereabouts is not known neither to us nor to the coalition, I gather,” Abdullah, who uses one name, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “But sooner or later he will be captured.”

In Istanbul on Wednesday, Turkey said it has volunteered to assume command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan when Britain’s mandate expires in three months.

A NATO member, Turkey has historic ties to Afghanistan and was the first Muslim country to offer to send troops there. A decision is pending on taking over leadership foreign troops in Afghanistan.

A 12-nation advance team for Afghanistan’s international peacekeeping force arrived in Kabul late Tuesday to assess logistics for the full-scale arrival of foreign troops later this month.