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General Says that Military Forces May Soon Locate Taliban Leaders

By John Riley
NEWSDAY -- American bombers pummeled isolated Taliban garrisons from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to Kandahar in the south Thursday as the U.S. general in charge of the operation said military forces were gradually closing in on leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

“We are tightening the noose,” Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at a Pentagon news conference. “It’s a matter of time.”

Pentagon officials said the opposition Northern Alliance now controls about 60 percent of the country, that the Taliban face insurgencies from local Pashtun warlords across the south, and that leaders of both the Taliban and al-Qaida were killed in airstrikes on buildings near Kabul and Kandahar earlier this week.

Despite the successes, Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld both said it is premature to conclude that the Taliban are finished as an effective fighting force, and they warned that bin Laden and others allegedly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States may elude their pursuers.

Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, has long and porous borders. “It’s not possible to detect everything electronically at all times,” he said. “I think we’ll find him either there or in some other country, but one has to be realistic.”

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was apparently undaunted by the cascade of bad news. In a defiant interview broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corp., he said his forces’ retreat was part of a strategy to destroy America. “If God’s help is with us, this will happen within a short time - keep in mind this prediction,” Omar said. “The real matter is the extinction of America, and, God willing, it will fall to the ground.”

Forty days into the U.S. campaign, however, signs of Taliban collapse were widespread in the wake of their retreat from the north and the capital of Kabul.