SAR-E-POL, Afghanistan — Thousands of Tajik and Uzbek soldiers are fanning out across the mountains here in search of a one-legged former Taliban mullah infamous for meting out medieval punishments and dispatching prisoners with his own hands.
Aided by a contingent of U.S. Special Forces troops, the soldiers, some on horseback, others in tanks, are searching village by village for Mullah Dadullah, the former Taliban deputy defense minister.
American operatives intercepted a satellite phone call earlier this week placing the mullah about 100 miles southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif. The area is a Tajik and Uzbek stronghold, fiercely anti-Taliban. Each morning young recruits with AK-47s slung over their shoulders trudge across wheat fields on the outskirts of town, past farmers standing knee-deep in icy mud, and begin their climb into the jagged Hesar Mountains to search for Dadullah. So far, few clues have been found.
"He has picked a good spot," Uzbek commander Gen. Majid Rozy said Thursday, referring to the rugged terrain. "But he is in trouble because he can't run and he can't climb."
Afghans call the mullah "Dadullah lang," or Dadullah the cripple, since he hobbles on an artificial leg because of an injury from a Soviet mine. But that hasn't made him any easier to catch. Twice he has slipped through Uzbek hands, most recently after last fall's standoff in the northern city of Kunduz.
One of the most ruthless of the Taliban, Dadullah was as loathed as any in the extremist Islamic regime.
In Mazar-i-Sharif in October, Dadullah is said to have ordered that five prisoners be tied to cars pointing in opposite directions. At his command, the cars accelerated and the rope decapitated the prisoners.
"It was disgusting," said Moweeb Montasser, a student.
Dadullah, thought to be about 40, bragged of killing thousands of prisoners himself, sometimes slitting their throats, Afghans say. He presided over public punishments in soccer stadiums, where doctors amputated the hands of thieves and adulterers were stoned. As a military commander, his signature tactic was to burn entire villages and slaughter civilians suspected of colluding with anti-Taliban forces.
"The way of the soldier, the name of Islam, nothing can justify what Dadullah did," said Abdul Rahoul Azizi, deputy governor of Sar-e-Pol province.
How such a notorious mullah got away is still a subject of great intrigue. Dadullah was the Taliban commander in Kunduz, one of the last Taliban redoubts to surrender in November after thousands of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters vowed to battle to the death.
But under terms worked out by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord and one of the leading Northern Alliance figures, Dadullah and Afghan soldiers were allowed safe passage from Kunduz to Balkh, a city near Mazar-i-Sharif. In exchange, Dadullah turned over 2,000 Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fighters.
Dadullah chose Balkh as a refuge because the city is one of the few in the area with a community of Pushtuns, his ethnic group and that of most Taliban leaders. He was supposed to be under guard once he arrived but soon disappeared. Officials with Tajik and Uzbek factions, the two main groups of the Northern Alliance, blame each other. They have also accused local Pushtuns of helping hide the mullah.
This was his second escape. Two years ago, after an intense battle in northern Afghanistan, Dadullah was captured along with 2,000 Taliban troops, said Northern Alliance commander Yar Mohammed. But after Uzbek soldiers took his prosthetic leg, the mullah slithered under a pickup truck and hid until he was eventually released with rank-and-file troops. "It was a mistake," Mohammed said. "We didn't know who he was."
On Monday, U.S. Special Forces troops picked up a satellite phone call made from the mountains near Sar-e-Pol and identified Dadullah through voice-recognition technology, said Gen. Abdul Hak Sakra, commander of Uzbek forces in the region. Maj. Martin Rose, a U.S. Army spokesman in Mazar-i-Sharif, confirmed that a search for Dadullah was underway in Sar-e-Pol but declined to discuss the role of American forces.
Tajik and Uzbek commanders volunteered their best horsemen, who ascended the mountains with six American soldiers, also on horseback, several Afghan generals said. The group has searched from village to village, hut to hut, sleeping in caves along the way, weathering snowstorms and feeding their horses hay hauled up the mountainside on the backs of shivering donkeys.
The horsemen were said to be supported by tanks and nearly 3,500 troops in the valleys below, along with American reconnaissance planes.
So far the search party hasn't found any sign of Dadullah, and villagers in the area say they haven't seen him.