KABUL, Afghanistan — Negotiations for the surrender of Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar were under way in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, and the former ruling militia's intelligence chief was killed in U.S. bombardment last week, officials said.
Qari Ahmadullah was believed to be the highest official in the hard-line Islamic militia to be killed in the U.S.-led campaign that ousted the movement from power in Afghanistan. Abdullah Tawheedi, a deputy intelligence minister for the interim government in Kabul, confirmed Ahmadullah's death to The Associated Press.
Ahmadullah, 40, had been identified by the U.S.-led coalition as one of the Taliban leaders it was trying to capture. He was among 25 people killed in Naka, in Paktika province, on Dec. 27, when U.S. planes attacked a house where he was staying, according to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
At the same time, U.S. and Afghan forces were intensifying their hunt for Omar, second to Osama bin Laden on the U.S. list of most-wanted terrorist fugitives.
A commander in the anti-Taliban forces, Jamal Khan, said his officials had confirmed that Omar was in hiding "somewhere in Baghran," a mountainous region north of Kandahar.
Afghan military leaders have been negotiating for two days with Baghran's loya jirga, or grand council, of tribal leaders, for Omar's surrender, Khan said.
A major military operation involving U.S. Marines and anti-Taliban soldiers began Monday to capture Omar. American troops in full combat gear were dispatched from the Marine base at Kandahar airport to northern locations near Baghran.
Omar has been in hiding since the fall of the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold, in early December.
But Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah said Wednesday that his government did not know where Omar was.
"I think Mullah Omar is still hiding somewhere in Afghanistan. His whereabouts is not known neither to us nor to the coalition, I gather," Abdullah, who uses one name, told ABC's "Good Morning America. "But sooner or later he will be captured."
Meanwhile, in Istanbul on Wednesday, Turkey said it has volunteered to assume command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan when Britain's mandate expires in three months.
A NATO member, Turkey has historic ties to Afghanistan and was the first Muslim country to offer to send troops there. A decision is pending on taking over leadership foreign troops in Afghanistan.
An 11-nation advance team for Afghanistan's international peacekeeping force arrived in Kabul late Tuesday to assess logistics for the full-scale arrival of foreign troops later this month.
British Col. Richard Barrens, chief of staff at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, said Wednesday the 25-person team includes representatives from Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
"Our mission is to provide (Afghans) with whatever assistance they feel they need," Barrens told a news conference in the newly established headquarters for international peacekeepers in a former military officers' club in central Kabul. "Our mission is to assist them in the security of Kabul."
Guy Richardson, a spokesman for British security forces, said meetings will be held in the next few days with Afghan leaders and British military commanders who began arriving shortly before the Dec. 22 inauguration of Afghanistan's interim government. Top on the agenda, Richardson said, will be trips into the countryside to assess where to deploy troops outside the capital.
Several main roads are considered unsafe to travel because of armed bandits, and sporadic fights with pockets of al-Qaida fighters have been reported.
French Col. Jean Marc Marill said one of the greatest difficulties facing international forces will be the removal of land mines, especially around Kabul's airport, where more troops will arrive in the coming weeks.
"We will have to de-mine many of the areas around which we will be working before getting started," Marill said.
Also problematic was stocking and refurbishing the abandoned, bullet-ridden officers' club now being used by the peacekeepers as their command station.
"All our trucks, water, food has had to be brought from the U.K.," Barrens said. "In Afghanistan, there is very little for us to use in establishing this force."
Troops sent outside Kabul, Barrens said, "will face the same challenges as we have of bringing forces by air into Afghanistan, in the middle of the winter, and deploying and sustaining them."
Clearing Kabul of armed militiamen, a stipulation of talks in Germany which established the framework of the interim government, will be left to the discretion of Afghan leaders.
"What we can or can't do will be up to the Afghan authorities and we are here to help them as best we can," Barrens said.
Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.