The US stepped up its efforts to persuade the Afghan people to turn over Osama bin Laden, as American military aircraft began broadcasting a radio message into the country announcing a US$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-Qaeda organization thought to be hiding in Afghanistan, are the latest elements of a US 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 Rumsfeld made it clear today that special operations forces 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 US will rely more heavily both on bombing raids and anti-Taliban Afghan forces in the hunt.
Hundreds of Egyptians and other Arabs who are part of bin Laden's network are still 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 who are among the thousands who joined the Taliban in recent years are also believed to have sought refuge in Kunduz, including relatives of some powerful clerics, a Pakistani intelligence official said. Saving them could improve the strained relations between Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, and his country's hard-line religious parties, which have opposed his assistance to the US.Defense Department officials said that American warplanes carried out heavy strikes today around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and Rumsfeld said that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, would not be allowed to negotiate his escape from the city.
Rumsfeld made it clear that Mullah 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 US.
In recent days the American bombing campaign has begun to pay dividends in the efforts to destroy the Qaeda leadership, apparently increasing the Pentagon's confidence that it can track down bin Laden without placing large numbers of American ground forces on missions with a high risk of casualties.
American intelligence officials believe that Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda's chief of military operations and a potential successor to bin Laden, was killed in a bombing raid last week.
The officials said today that new intelligence reports received over the weekend indicate that he was killed in a raid on a building near Kabul last Tuesday night, rather than later in the week as initially believed.
The building was a target because US intelligence believed that it housed a large group of al-Qaeda members. Approximately 50 al-Qaeda officials were in the building and are presumed to have been killed, American intelligence officials said today.
American intelligence and military officials do not think that bin Laden was in the building, and instead believe that he is still in southeastern Afghanistan, hiding in the rural area with some of his lieutenants and security forces.
There is no evidence that he has yet tried to flee Afghanistan. A Pentagon official said that a psychological profile of bin Laden drafted after Sept. 11 predicted that, based on his past behavior, he would not try to flee from the country and go into hiding but would make a final stand with a loyal band of bodyguards.
A former American law enforcement official who has been involved in investigating bin Laden over much of the last decade said the search has narrowed to an area of 77km2 in the district of Maruf, about 160km 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 US would not need bin Laden's body in order to claim victory, adding, "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-Qaeda leaders indicating that the US has gathered more information on the identities of al-Qaeda leaders still in Afghanistan than it has previously disclosed.
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