KABUL, Jan 5: Taliban leader Mulla Mohammad Omar gave US-led forces the slip once more on Saturday, Afghan intelligence said, roaring off on a motorbike just before the force protecting him agreed to lay down its arms.

The reported escape is another blow for the US coalition, which thought it was close to capturing the Taliban leader and admits it has already lost track of its other key target: Osama bin Laden.

“The team we had sent to Helmund province to hold talks with pro-Taliban commanders reported to us that Mulla Omar has escaped from Baghran and the whole province of Helmund,” intelligence official Nasratullah Nasrat told AFP.

A senior defence ministry source told AFP that the Afghan forces had not been able to completely encircle the Taliban forces, allowing Mulla Omar to repeat the disappearing act that allowed him to abandon his Kandahar headquarters last month without running into US-backed troops.

“Mulla Omar was never surrounded. He was never captured. Now no-one knows where he is,” the defence official told AFP, adding that Mulla Omar was believed to have fled on a motorbike with four supporters.

But another intelligence official, who asked not to be named, said that while Mulla Omar had indeed left the province the Afghan authorities had not lost track of him completely.

“We know where Mulla Omar is. But... we cannot disclose it for the time being,” he said. “We are sure that he cannot escape and we will definitely capture him.”

The commander of the US campaign, Gen Tommy Franks, had said earlier that the US intelligence believed Mulla Omar and his remaining fighters were near Baghran and Deh Rahwood in mountainous south central Afghanistan.

Asked on Friday where Osama bin Laden was, Franks said: “We don’t know.”

Mulla Omar had been harboured in Baghran by Taliban commander Abdul Ahad, better known as Rais-i-Baghran — or chief of Baghran.

Afghan officials said Baghran’s force of between 1,000 and 1,500 fighters had put down their guns and surrendered, qualifying them for an amnesty extended by Karzai for low-ranking former Taliban.

The Washington Post reported that Pakistan had agreed to hand over Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Islamabad, to US forces.

Pakistani officials would not confirm this, but said Mulla Zaeef had returned to Afghanistan.

The Post also reported a high-ranking Al-Qaeda training officer had also been captured by Pakistani forces and was already in US hands: Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan said to be the most senior Al-Qaeda official in US hands.

As the US-led military campaign continues in the south of the country, in Kabul a British-led international force is deploying to ensure stability in the capital as Karzai’s government takes control.

Around 160 British paratroopers were scheduled to arrive on Saturday to join the 270-strong detachment of Royal Marines already in place, British spokesman Major Guy Richardson told AFP. —AFP

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