Refugees Hint at Waning Taliban Stronghold

Quoting unidentified U.S. and European diplomats, the newspaper al-Watan said the U.S. administration was convinced it would not capture bin Laden alive after Taliban defectors revealed his death wish to CIA agents in Afghanistan.

"Bin Laden has given precise instructions to his closest aides, who will remain by his side until the end, to shoot him if he becomes surrounded by U.S. troops and cannot escape," the newspaper said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said it sounds like bin Laden is feeling pressure as a result of the collapse of the Taliban and perhaps from the $25 million reward the United States has put on his head and has been advertising in Afghanistan with radio broadcasts and airdrops of leaflets.

"I think it does suggest that this is a man on the run, that this is a man who is being deserted by people who sheltered him not long ago, that this is a man with a price on his head," Wolfowitz said today.

Osama on the Run

Fearing the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks and his associates might try to slip out of Afghanistan, U.S. officials announced today they would stop and board suspect ships off the coast of Pakistan as well as target aircraft trying to escape Afghan airspace.

Officials said military forces have destroyed two or three enemy aircraft in recent weeks, but officials do not know if they were carrying any important figures.

A Navy official said it has not yet stopped and boarded any ships so far, nor has it received any information that the escape route is in terrorists' plans.

But the long, sparsely populated Pakistani coast has often been a stopping point for smugglers, and many port towns are home to hard-line Islamic parties that support the Taliban and bin Laden.

In addition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he wants to increase U.S. firepower in Afghanistan, specifically by basing more AC-130 gunships closer to Afghanistan so they can support opposition forces.

"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north, particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz, because that particular weapons system and platform can put out an enormous amount of ordnance with a great deal of precision," he said.

ABCNEWS has learned the U.S. and France are now making final plans to move combat aircraft close to Afghanistan for the first time. The tiny Asian republic of Kyrgystan — just north of the Afghan border — appears to be the first choice.

More American special operations troops were also being sent into the southern part of Afghanistan, partly to deal with the situation in Kandahar, which continues to suffer airstrikes from U.S. warplanes.

Hundreds of U.S. special forces have already spent weeks on the ground in Afghanistan hunting bin Laden. Franks refused to rule out the insertion of large numbers of U.S. and allied ground troops to hunt for terrorists and Taliban leaders.

The United States is preparing to add Marines to the mix of forces available in Afghanistan as well. As many as 1,600 of them, many of them trained in commando operations, are now on the amphibious ships USS Bataan and USS Peleliu off the coast of Pakistan, and officials say within days they will be ready to go ashore.

Even in Peace, Kabul Remains Bloody

In other developments:

The United States has told Pakistan it no longer sees any reason for the Taliban embassy in Islamabad to stay open, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

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