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RESPONSE TO TERROR | HUNT FOR BIN LADEN

U.S. Forces Find Suspected Weapons Labs

Afghanistan: Search for chemical, biological and nuclear arms turns up suspicious items. Hunt for Bin Laden narrows as plane bombs Al Qaeda compound in south.

November 28, 2001|JOHN HENDREN and MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TAMPA, Fla. — More than 40 sites in Afghanistan have been identified as possible laboratories for weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. commander of the Afghan campaign said Tuesday, as Pentagon leaders disclosed that they are focusing the search for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders on two areas of the country.

During a briefing at his Tampa headquarters, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, described progress in the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Samples of seized substances were being sent to laboratories in the United States for testing, he said.

Late Tuesday, the Pentagon reported that U.S. aircraft had bombed a "nontrivial" compound that has housed leaders of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network southeast of Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban's remaining stronghold. Officials said they did not know of any injuries or deaths at the compound, which reportedly had also been used by the Taliban and Wafa, a Saudi humanitarian group that the U.S. named as aiding Bin Laden. U.S. officials also said they did not know who was inside the facility when it was hit.

In Pakistan, former Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said that neither Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar nor other Taliban officials were in the compound when it was hit, the Pakistani-based pro-Taliban Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported. Zaeef also denied that the facility was used by Taliban leaders.

Pitched fighting continued near Kandahar on Tuesday, as more U.S. Marines streamed into an airfield southwest of the city to establish a forward base.

In the north, opposition forces consolidated their control with the surrender of thousands more Taliban fighters who had fled the fallen stronghold of Kunduz. Also in the north, opposition leaders claimed that they had quelled a bloody uprising by foreign Taliban fighters at a prison complex near Mazar-i-Sharif. But Franks contradicted this, saying his information indicated that 30 to 40 Taliban prisoners continued a last-ditch fight after three days of struggle.

The suspected weapons laboratories across Afghanistan have attracted the U.S. military's attention since Taliban forces surrendered control of most of northern Afghanistan three weeks ago. Journalists who have visited the sites have found suspicious documents and equipment, including a vial, labeled as the poison gas sarin, in an abandoned house in Kabul, the capital.

Sarin was used by the members of the Japanese extremist group Aum Supreme Truth in its terrorist strike on a Tokyo subway station in 1995. But Franks said U.S. forces have not found any substance that they can identify as a specific agent.

"If I thought I had my hands on a vial of sarin gas, I would be a bit more circuitous," Franks said. "No, we have not found a substance that we believe is a specific thing."

He said U.S. forces consider it a high priority not to leave behind any weapons of mass destruction. "That is nonnegotiable," he said. "We will not leave weapons of mass destruction in" Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials have sought to remain vague on where they have concentrated their search for Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership. But Franks gave the first general indications, saying that the military has found "two areas that are very interesting to us."

One is the area surrounding Kandahar; the second is a triangular region in the north from Kabul to the Khyber Pass on the border with Pakistan to the city of Jalalabad. The second region includes the village of Tora Bora, long rumored to be a haven for Bin Laden. Residents recently claimed to have seen the fugitive militant.

Both regions are pocked with underground caves, tunnels and reinforced bunkers, which moujahedeen fighters used to elude the Soviets during their 1979-89 occupation. Officials added that these weren't the only areas where they are searching for the enemy leaders.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared with Franks, said that the $25-million reward that Washington has offered for Bin Laden is helping produce a rising volume of intelligence tips.

"The intelligence information is coming in in large volumes," he said. "There is no question that there are people who have found that reward money is an incentive and are busily engaged in trying to earn it."

He also sought to clarify the mission of the newly arrived force of 1,000 Marines, saying they are intended simply to establish an operating base from which U.S. troops may pursue the Afghan campaign. But, he added, they might be used "for some other purpose" in the future.

Holding a local base allows U.S. forces to avoid making seven- to nine-hour flights to allied air bases and to U.S. vessels in the Arabian Sea, Franks said.

The Marine force, which is not to exceed 1,100, will block roads and monitor more than 150 mountain pathways to keep Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from fleeing Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said.

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