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Taliban may have arranged escapes

A captured al Qaeda soldier covers his face with bandaged hand.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Afghan opposition forces may have agreed to let key Taliban leaders go free in exchange for surrendering territory, especially around Kandahar, the Pentagon said Monday.

"This region, this country, you know, has a history built on bartering," said the Pentagon's spokesman, Navy Adm. John Stufflebeem. "So we suspect that has, in fact, been happening."

Kandahar, the former spiritual headquarters of the Taliban, was surrendered earlier this month. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar lived in the city, but has not been found.

When Kandahar changed hands, Stufflebeem said, there "weren't that many (Taliban) forces to be found. You can make a pretty good assumption there that there was some coordination done with individuals who would pay for their escape and movement."

Stufflebeem would not say which Taliban leaders may have been allowed to go free, but said Omar "is certainly an individual that we would like to have." He also said there is "no credible" evidence Omar has left Afghanistan, and that some reports indicate he might still be in the Kandahar region.

U.S. special forces, aided by anti-Taliban fighters, are searching for the escaped Taliban leaders around Kandahar, using intelligence reports, interviewing captured Taliban and talking with locals, Stufflebeem said.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the location of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

Prisoners taken in eastern Afghanistan said they think bin Laden remains in the mountainous Tora Bora region, but there have also been reports that bin Laden might have escaped into Pakistan.

 Injured Marines
Here are the three U.S. Marines injured Sunday in a mine-clearing operation at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, their hometown and injuries:

• Sgt. Adrian Aranda, 22, El Paso, Texas, hand injury.

• Cpl. Christopher T. Chandler, 21, Aurora, Colorado, serious foot injury.

• Lance Cpl. Nicholas J. Sovereign, 20, Battle Creek, Nebraska, head and ear injuries.

All three men were assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Pendleton, California.

Watch entire Osama bin Laden videotape, released by the Pentagon on Thursday (December 13)

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U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with U.S. troops and talked with members of the interim Afghan government. CNN's Jamie Mcintyre reports (December 17)

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"It's anyone's guess" where the al Qaeda leader might be, Stufflebeem said.

U.S. officials said Osama bin Laden may have spoken last week on a battlefield radio in the Tora Bora area in eastern Afghanistan.

A Defense Department official who speaks Arabic and knows bin Laden's voice reported hearing him last week speaking once on a tactical radio. No recording was made of the transmission, officials said, and therefore the voice has not been definitively identified. Reports that a voice print had been made on the transmission are incorrect, officials said. (Full story)

Latest developments

• The United States is holding five detainees, including American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, the Pentagon said. Those five are on the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea. Anti-Taliban forces have fewer than 100 detainees.

• The three U.S Marines injured Sunday in a landmine explosion near the Kandahar airport have been taken to hospitals outside of Afghanistan for treatment, Stufflebeem said Monday. Doctors amputated the leg of one Marine, and the other two sustained head and hand injuries, he said.

• President Bush said Monday "it's just a matter of time" before bin Laden and his associates are captured. "When the dust clears, we'll find out where he is, and he'll be brought to justice," Bush told reporters at the White House.

• The former U.S. Embassy in Kabul opened Monday, the first time it has been in operation in 12 years. The State Department's top representative to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, presided over the ceremony. The former embassy initially will serve as a "liaison office" between the United States and the interim Afghan government, which is set to take office on December 22. (Full story)

• Workers finished fumigating the Hart Senate Office Building Monday morning in an attempt to remove anthrax spores from the ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems, the U.S. Capitol police said. Spot treatments of the facility will continue. (Full story)

• The first components of an international peacekeeping force are expected to be operational in the Afghan capital, Kabul, by Saturday. (Full story)

• Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the situation in the region "confused" and said al Qaeda fighters still pose a threat. "It's going to be a while before we have the area around Tora Bora fully under control," Franks said. (Full story)

• The Saudi citizen shown conversing with Osama bin Laden about the September 11 terrorist attacks on a videotape released last week is Khaled al-Habri, a former mujahedeen fighter, senior Saudi officials said. U.S. officials initially believed the man was Ali Sayeed al-Ghamdy, a former Islamic theology professor. (Full story)

• The CIA uses anthrax in its bio-warfare program but its bacteria has no connection to the tainted letter sent to two U.S. senators and several news organizations, an agency official said Sunday. (Full story)

• Rumsfeld said the U.S. military has gathered significant intelligence from a suspected al Qaeda biological, nuclear, and chemical site near Camp Rhino, the U.S. Marine base in southern Afghanistan. (Full story)


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