KANDAHAR - The United States military arrested the former Taleban Ambassador to Pakistan yesterday, but supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden still elude Afghan and US forces.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taleban's principal spokesman during the war in Afghanistan and the vanquished movement's highest-ranking official to be captured, joined 306 detainees facing interrogation by US officials.

Three months after the US went to war in response to the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush led the country in mourning the loss of Sergeant 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, the first American soldier killed by enemy fire.

Chapman died in a gunbattle in eastern Afghanistan, where US troops are hunting remnants of the Taleban and al Qaeda network.

The new US envoy to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the US bombing campaign, launched on October 7, would not end until its aims were met, despite concern among Afghanistan's new anti-Taleban leaders at civilian casualties in recent strikes.

Zaeef, a bespectacled 34-year-old ethnic Pashtun who had sought political asylum in Pakistan after that country broke off diplomatic ties with the Taleban, was deported to his home country and immediately detained by US forces.

US forces also have taken custody of Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran some of bin Laden's training camps. He is the highest-ranking member of bin Laden's al Qaeda network captured in the war.

The detainees likely face questioning about the whereabouts of both bin Laden and Omar, who apparently eluded capture a day after the new rulers in Kabul said they felt close to capturing the Taleban leader at Baghran, 160km northwest of Kandahar.

But some Taleban and other commanders in Baghran did surrender.

Almost 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of large weapons were recovered in the three-day operation.

The other focus of military activity is close to the Pakistani border in the east, where US forces have been searching the caves and tunnel complexes of the Tora Bora mountains where al Qaeda diehards made a stand last month.

"You see, the people that tend to send young, innocent boys to their death in the name of Allah want to save their own skins by hiding in caves," Bush said of al Qaeda leaders.

US jets have also bombed suspected targets in eastern Afghanistan, where al Qaeda fighters were believed to be trying to regroup.

Chapman, 31, of San Antonio, Texas, died in an ambush near Gardez, west of Khost.

A CIA agent was wounded in the attack.

Ten other US personnel have died in the war but Chapman was the first soldier killed by enemy fire.

A CIA agent killed in November was the first American to die in combat.

Khalilzad, returning to the country of his birth for the first time in 30 years, said the air strikes would go on despite an unconfirmed report of civilian casualties in the latest US bombing raids and disquiet among Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's United Nations-backed Government at possible civilian deaths.

"Messages I have received, based on my telephone discussions with Afghan leaders, is that they are very supportive of the campaign," said Khalilzad.

"We do not like to bomb. It's with reluctance and with a great deal of concern about the possible civilian implications or costs.

"But we also understand that these people, remnants of al Qaeda and the Taleban leaders, are dangerous, not only for us but for the Afghans, so we will have to continue with the campaign until we have achieved our objective."

Across the border in Pakistan, authorities were holding more than 200 Saudi Arabians caught fleeing from Afghanistan, said a Saudi newspaper.

Officials would hand over anyone with links to the al Qaeda network to the US.

The Okaz daily quoted Pakistan Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider as saying US and Pakistani interrogators were questioning around 240 Saudis captured inside Pakistan after fleeing the Tora Bora mountains and other Afghan regions.

"If it is proven that any of them are members of the al Qaeda organisation, then they will be handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation," Okaz quoted Haider as saying.

"We are still gathering information," he added.

Saudi Arabia has said it wants custody of any nationals captured in Afghanistan and will punish those with criminal links to Saudi-born dissident bin Laden.

Many Saudis are believed to be among the so-called Afghan Arabs who, along with other fighters from non-Arab Muslim countries, form the backbone of al Qaeda.

Diplomats in Riyadh have said that Saudi authorities rounded up around 400 people linked to al Qaeda soon after the September attacks.

They said a few hundred others had left the country for Afghanistan before the crackdown began.

Haider said Islamabad would coordinate with Riyadh to hand over Saudis who are not on the FBI list of al Qaeda members.


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