U.S. special forces are on the trail of accused terror mastermind Osama bin Laden but reports that they have him and the leaders of his al Qaeda network penned in are premature, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
"The al Qaeda and Taliban leadership can be any number of places, and they move frequently, and therefore, to try and think that we have them contained in some sort of a small area I think would be a misunderstanding of the difficulty of the task," Rumsfeld said.
To that end, the CIA has also been handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars for information about bin Laden, and to encourage Afghans to go hunt for him themselves in the treacherous caves and tunnels where he is believed to be hiding.
The United States is already offering a $25 million reward for anyone who helps capture or kill bin Laden.
"Our hope is that the incentive — the dual incentive of helping to free that country from a very repressive regime … coupled with substantial monetary rewards will … incentivize a large number of people to begin crawling through those tunnels and caves looking for the bad folks," Rumsfeld said.
The U.S. is also preparing to add Marines to the mix of forces available in Afghanistan. More than a thousand are now off the coast of Pakistan and officials say within days they will be ready to go ashore.
Kunduz in the Balance
U.S. air power was continuing operations at the Taliban's last remaining northern stronghold of Kunduz, said ABCNEWS' Don Dahler, reporting just six miles from the front lines around the city.
Throughout the day, a pair of B-52's pummeled front lines there, as negotiations for a surrender continued.
But the defense secretary said the United States was not interested in bargaining with the Taliban. "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders, nor are we in a position with relatively small numbers of forces on the ground to accept prisoners," he said.
Rumsfeld said talks were "for the most part, taking place with the opposition forces and elements that are putting pressure onto … Kunduz or Kandahar, whichever."
"It's our hope that they will not engage in negotiations that would provide for the release of al Qaeda forces, that would provide for the release of foreign nationals, non-Afghans, leaving the country and destabilizing neighboring countries, which is not your first choice either. The idea that they would keep their weapons is not a happy one, from our standpoint either."
A number of them the Taliban fighters in Kunduz are foreign mercenaries — primarily Arab, Pakistani and Chechen — and fear retribution from the Afghan forces of the Northern Alliance if the city is taken. But their avenues of withdrawal are limited.
A Northern Alliance spokesman called them "terrorists. Foreigners fighting in Afghanistan. They can't possibly allowed to surrender to the U.N."
Nevertheless, opposition troops reportedly eased off in their assault today to give negotiators a chance to work a deal to spare civilian lives.
Abdul Vadut Kudusi, Northern Alliance military attache in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, told Reuters that Afghan troops fighting for the Taliban wanted to surrender, but they feared reprisal from the Pakistani, Chechen and Arab mercenaries fighting as part of the al Qaeda network.
Al Qaeda fighters on Sunday turned their guns on Afghan comrades who wanted to surrender, killing 53 of them, Kudusi said.
"We worry that if there is a battle, civilians will suffer. We do not want to allow bloodshed, so we are talking to the Taliban," said Ariyonfard Shamsulkhak, another spokesman for the alliance. "The local civilians are hostages of the Taliban."
Intelligence sources say there could be as many as 10,000 Taliban soldiers holed up in Kunduz, many of them zealous, battle-hardened soldiers from around the Muslim world.
The Taliban also appeared to be defending the southern city of Kandahar amid reports that local elders and warlords were attempting to negotiate a handover of the city that spawned the Taliban and functioned as its spiritual capital through its five years in power.
More American special operations troops are being sent into the southern part of Afghanistan, partly to deal with the situation in Kandahar, and American planes bombed the area over the weekend.
The United States now has at least 300 special operation troops on the ground in Afghanistan and U.S. forces are shifting to a strategy of staging fewer bombing runs while making a stronger effort on the ground to find bin Laden.
Closing in on Bin Laden
The situation in Afghanistan continued to be dangerous despite last week's Northern Alliance successes, but U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said bin Laden's options were being steadily narrowed and U.S. special forces were searching village by village and cave by cave to find the accused terror mastermind.
With the Taliban in tatters, U.S. officials believe they are closing in on bin Laden, since the collapse of the regime's military has left him with considerably reduced territory to operate in.
"We think he is still in Afghanistan," Powell said Sunday on ABCNEWS' This Week. "There aren't many countries around Afghanistan which would welcome him at the moment.
"He has fewer and fewer places in which to hide."
Pentagon officials today discounted claims by a Northern Alliance official that opposition forces had pinpointed bin Laden's position at a camp east of Kandahar, and there have been other conflicting reports about bin Laden's location.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, told Reuters today that the regime only knows that bin Laden is not in the four provinces that remain under its control.
"We don't know whether he is in Afghanistan or not," Zaeef said. "But he is definitely not in our area."
Fears of Anarchy After Taliban Fall
Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance agreed to a conference for a post-Taliban government, amid concern that the country could fall into anarchy once again.
U.N. diplomats in Kabul are hopeful that a meeting of the various anti-Taliban parties could be convened as early as next week to talk about the next government of Afghanistan.
"There is really a hunger for peace," James F. Dobbins, the U.S. envoy to the alliance, said in Pakistan after meeting its leaders near Kabul. "There's a willingness to compromise," he told reporters.
The United Nations wanted the conference to be chaired by Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, a member of the Pushtuns, the ethnic group most closely linked to the Taliban, but the Northern Alliance said it would only allow the ex-monarch's to participate as a common citizen.
However, Dobbins said he was convinced the movement was committed to giving the Pashtuns a role, and alliance leaders have asked the United Nations to find Pushtun representatives attend the talks.
The alliance consists mainly of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras; the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, may not accept a new government unless they play a major role.
The opposition group agreed to participate in talks outside Afghanistan, but continues to resist U.S. and British pressure to accept international peacekeeping troops.
With the Taliban out of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, there are growing concerns that the power vacuum could suck the country into the same anarchy that enabled the Taliban's rise.
In Kabul, there was music in the streets over the weekend, but also fear. Even as they celebrated the defeat of the Taliban, residents worried about a return to civil war and anarchy.
Four Western Journalists Killed
Today on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, four Western journalists were killed — a reminder that the country has far to go before peace and stability.
The four were traveling as part a convoy of media vehicles when they were stopped in territory that was earlier believed to be safely under Northern Alliance control.
Near the town of Serobi, 35 miles east of Kabul, gunmen told their drivers not to go any further because there were snipers up on the hills shooting at cars as they were going by.
Ashiquallah, one of the drivers, told The Associated Press that a bus then came by and contradicted the gunmen's claims. But when the cars' drivers tried to speed away, the gunmen stopped them, he said.
The gunmen then ordered all the journalists out of the cars into the surrounding hills, and told their drivers to leave. When the journalists refused, they were beaten, Ashiquallah said. Then they were shot and killed
According to their employers, the journalists were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan photographer, both of Reuters; Maria Grazia Cutuli of Corriere della Sera; and Julio Fuentes of El Mundo.
Local militia have set out to recover the bodies, but turned back because the the ambush site was too dangerous, they said.
The militia commander in the area said he did not believe the gunmen were Taliban, but Ashiquallah said the gunmen told the journalists shortly before killing them, "'What, you think the Taliban are finished? We are still in power and we will have our revenge."'
British Troops Get Cold Shoulder
In other developments:
U.S. troops were joined by 85 British SAS commandos who arrived in Bagram on Friday, but the new arrivals were not greeted with welcome arms by the Northern Alliance, who seem to be growing mistrustful of the increased foreign presence in Afghanistan. Northern Alliance leaders argued that only 15 British soldiers were needed to help protect and maintain the air base. Britain has as many as 6,000 troops on standby to fly in.
Eight Western aid workers held for three months by the Taliban in Afghanistan were reunited with their families in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday. The workers had been detained since Aug. 3 on suspicion of preaching Christianity, a charge for which they could have faced the death penalty. The group was released when Northern Alliance forces took control of Kabul.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy, Jim Wooten and Don Dahler contributed to this report.