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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Confirms Marines Aiding Hunt in South

War: With Bin Laden and Taliban leader still at large, forces are collecting information near Kandahar, an Army officer says.

January 02, 2002|JOHN HENDREN and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar continued Tuesday, American defense officials confirmed that U.S. Marines were helping with "information gathering" at a former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

The Marines have been "actively doing a search . . . in the Helmand province west of Kandahar," while Special Forces have been working with anti-Taliban soldiers in the region, said Army Col. Rick Thomas at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The southern city of Kandahar was a Taliban stronghold until it fell last month.

Thomas said the Marines "are not going after Omar," but he declined to offer details of the special operations activities. The Marines are searching one of 14 sites identified as having been used by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, Thomas said.

In the past couple of days, there have been several reports that Al Qaeda forces that fled Kandahar went to the northern part of Helmand. The reports were part of warnings to Afghans that the roads in that area are not safe. Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai was quoted on Radio Afghanistan on Tuesday as saying that if Omar was in the province, he would be captured.

The Washington Post reported that a column of about 20 armored personnel carriers, Humvees and trucks, protected by Harrier fighter jets and helicopter gunships, ferried about 200 Marines to Helmand. The Marines searched for documents, booklets, videotapes and other material.

Meanwhile, American Talib John Walker Lindh was one of eight detainees transferred from the U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship Peleliu to the Bataan, another assault ship in the Arabian Sea. Officials declined to say why Walker and the others were moved.

Thomas also said the number of Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees held by U.S. forces has risen to 210. In addition to the eight shipboard prisoners, there are 189 in Kandahar, 12 at Bagram and one at Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

In Kabul, Afghanistan's interim government pressed forward with getting organized. Karzai continued the steady stream of meetings that have been his daily life since he started the job 10 days ago. He met in the capital with the United Nations' special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, as well as Afghan tribal elders from several provinces.

Karzai will make his first official visits outside the country in the next few weeks. He will go to the United States, India and Japan, which is hosting a meeting of countries that are expected to contribute funds toward the rebuilding of Afghanistan, according to a report on Radio Afghanistan.

Other ministries were busy. As dusk fell, Rural Affairs Minister Abdul Malek was working late trying to draw up a budget for his agency, which is short on staff, supplies, chairs and everything else it takes to run a government department.

Aid agencies kicked off an $8-million immunization program aimed at inoculating about 9 million Afghan children against measles. The disease, which has been virtually eradicated in developed countries, kills about 35,000 Afghan children a year, according to the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organization--two of the agencies that are spearheading the program.

Afghans seemed eager to participate, and throughout the day there was a steady stream of parents bringing their children to the modest hospital in Kabul for shots. It was the first experience with an inoculation for many of the children.

Another major humanitarian effort was underway at the government's main orphanage in the capital. A private Italian television station, in concert with the Italian Red Cross, delivered a truckload of blankets, clothes and shoes to the nearly 1,000 children who live at the orphanage and a sister institution for girls. Subsequent deliveries will include food, toys, books and school supplies, said Alfredo Macchi, a correspondent for the station, which is owned by Mediaset.

The donations came about after Macchi broadcast a program on the orphanage several weeks ago and received an enormous response from Italians who wanted to help the children. The channel raised more than $500,000 and coordinated with the Red Cross to transport the supplies and ensure they arrived.

Last month the orphanage received some of the nearly 45 tons of food delivered to Afghanistan thanks to a joint effort by the New York Fire Department, which raised money to help the Afghan children, and an international aid agency.

The delivery was underwritten by Diageo, a food and beverage company, through its Spirit of America Fund.

*

Times staff writer Eric Slater in Bagram contributed to this report.

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