KABUL, Afghanistan — Pushing to snatch the elusive leader of Afghanistan's deposed Taliban, American forces have launched a mission to capture Mullah Mohammed Omar, probably in the rugged mountains northwest of Kandahar, the interim prime minister said.
"If he's there, he'll be arrested," Prime Minister Hamid Karzai told The Associated Press in Kabul on Monday night. "We are determined to see him arrested."
Pentagon officials confirmed Monday that a mission was in progress but refused to comment further, saying it could endanger those involved. Officials at the Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., said they were unaware of an operation to capture Omar.
Karzai said Marines launched the mission. In southern Afghanistan, dozens of U.S. forces in Marine outfits were seen boarding CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters at their base in Kandahar, Omar's hometown and the Taliban's final stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
The helicopters, which can hold up to 25 soldiers each, took off toward the northwest just before sunset. A B-52 bomber and fighter jet also could be seen headed in the same direction.
Afghan officials suspect Omar is in the Baghran area, a remote, mountainous region about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. A U.S. intelligence official said Monday that American officials also think Omar probably is there.
Any move against Omar probably also would include U.S. Special Forces, which are operating with the anti-Taliban Afghan groups that would also join in the hunt. Special Forces would help direct airstrikes and give the Afghans advice and supplies.
President Bush would not confirm the mission but repeated that the U.S. military is intent on getting Omar — and the man he was long suspected of sheltering, fugitive terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, the top quarry of American forces since airstrikes began in October.
"We're going to get him. It's just a matter of when," Bush said on vacation in Texas.
Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, an ex-intelligence chief in Kandahar who abandoned the Islamic militia, told The Associated Press in Kabul that if Omar is in Baghran, he would be protected by forces loyal to Abdul Wahid, a local tribal leader.
Khaqzar, a Taliban founder, said Omar probably would have some Taliban fighters with him, but not enough to repel U.S. forces. Afghan fighters who know the area are helping U.S. troops, he said.
Also Monday, a U.S. Special Forces soldier was shot in the leg when his unit came under fire on a road outside of the eastern Afghan city of Special, officials said. The wound was not life-threatening and the unit was rescued, said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Klee, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
The Special Forces unit involved in the shootout was on a road north of the Tora Bora region near Jalalabad, where bandits and Taliban supporters make travel dangerous. The unit came under fire, fired back and called in a quick reaction force for backup, Klee said. The unidentified gunmen fled.
U.S. forces have been searching for Omar since he apparently fled Kandahar before its surrender to Karzai and other anti-Taliban forces Dec. 7. Omar has close links to Baghran's tribal chief, Abdul Wahid, who was apparently involved in the negotiations that led to Kandahar's surrender.
American forces leaving for the mission carried full combat gear, including large backpacks, helmets, goggles and M-16 rifles. Their weapons also included 5.56mm light machine guns, grenades and 72mm anti-tank weapons — which also can be used to destroy other vehicles and bunkers. Their commanders had maps and battle plans spread out on the ground.
The Sea King helicopters they boarded, distinctive for their dual rotors, have a range of about 180 miles and are the Marine Corps' main medium-lift troop transport helicopter.
Karzai did not provide any details on how many Afghans were involved in the operation or what their role might be.
Asked whether he thought bin Laden might be with Omar, he said, "It is difficult to know. There have been so many rumors about bin Laden's whereabouts."
U.S. officials believe bin Laden was in the mountainous Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan at least until mid-December.
U.S. military officials also disputed reports from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that at least 92 people were killed by U.S. bombing near the village of Niazi Qala in Paktia province. The strike hit a compound used by Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, said Cmdr. Dave Culler, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
"If any innocents or civilians were killed in the attack, the cause would be the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders living alongside people who are not complicit with their crimes," Culler said Monday.
In other developments:
Bush named an Afghan-born adviser on his national security team as special presidential envoy to Afghanistan on Monday. Zalmay Khalilzad, an ethnic Pashtun who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the war on terrorism, will work with the U.N. secretary general's representative on Afghanistan.
The U.S. government designated another six entities as suspected terrorist organizations and ordered their financial assets blocked.
A Treasury Department spokeswoman said it was too early to tell if any of the six organizations has financial assets in the United States. She said the organizations were not believed to have been involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Treasury said five of the six groups have been especially active in the United Kingdom. The European Union imposed financial sanctions against the same six, as well as other organizations, last week.