KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's interim leader promised Sunday that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar will be tracked down, even as reports said the one-eyed cleric may have eluded capture and fled to another province.
Meanwhile, American officials said the highest-ranking Taliban official in U.S. custody — former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef — has been moved to an American warship.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported Sunday that U.S. forces and their Afghan allies, backed by airstrikes, were carrying out operations in the Spinghar mountain range of eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad, where al-Qaida holdouts were suspected to be hiding. It said 40 were arrested and handed over to the Americans.
Visiting an orphanage in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai told The Associated Press that Omar, America's most wanted man after Osama bin Laden, will be taken into custody when found.
"We are looking for him, and we will arrest him," Karzai said.
Omar appeared to have eluded capture in Baghran, in mountainous central Afghanistan, where government officials claimed a few days ago he was surrounded by anti-Taliban forces negotiating his surrender. Omar's close associate, Abdul Wahid, is the tribal chief there.
Reports from some former Taliban soldiers say Omar and his former intelligence chief, Abdul Razzak, may be in Zabul province, north of Kandahar.
Meanwhile, two members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday officials are beginning to believe that bin Laden has fled Afghanistan, possibly for Pakistan.
Sen. John Edwards, traveling with other senators in the region, told "Fox News Sunday" that Uzbekistan's military intelligence service believes bin Laden has crossed into Pakistan. Uzbekistan, like Pakistan, borders Afghanistan and has been a U.S. ally in the military campaign.
"I fully expect the Pakistanis will do everything they can to help us locate bin Laden," Edwards, D-N.C., said.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Graham said bin Laden and other top officials probably have escaped Afghanistan, but no one is certain.
"Increasingly, as our efforts to get them in Afghanistan have been futile, there is a greater sense that they have, in fact, escaped, and are probably in one of those tribal territories just over the border into Pakistan," Graham, D-Fla., said on ABC's "This Week."
The United States hopes a pair of high-profile prisoners will provide valuable intelligence about bin Laden's al-Qaida network, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the radical Taliban movement that gave it a base of operations.
Marine Lt. James Jarvis said Zaeef was in custody aboard a ship in the Arabian Sea.
Also, Ibn Al-Shayk al-Libi, who ran al-Qaida terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was transferred Saturday from anti-Taliban forces to U.S. authorities at Kandahar airport, controlled by the U.S. Marines.
Jarvis said 25 new prisoners arrived Saturday night in Kandahar from Pakistan, where they were captured while trying to flee, bringing the total to 300. They were being interrogated for information on area al-Qaida.
"We are looking for things we can act upon," Jarvis said. "We remain active in our quest to (uncover) al-Qaida and Taliban" warriors.
Zaeef probably was the best-known face of the Taliban, giving daily news conferences at his embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, during the height of the U.S.-led bombing campaign in October and November to topple the extremist Islamic regime.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees rejected his application for refugee status. Pakistan, the Taliban's strongest supporter before the Sept. 11 attacks, said Zaeef no longer was protected by diplomatic immunity after the Taliban government fell.
Also Sunday, a Pentagon spokesman said in Washington that about 1,500 U.S. troops are bound for the Navy base in Cuba to build and guard a maximum-security prison for al-Qaida and Taliban detainees.
The majority of those troops are Army military police from Fort Hood, Texas, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis. About 1,000 began deploying Sunday.
Up to 2,000 prisoners eventually may be housed at the Guantanamo Bay base, Davis said.
In other developments:
—A British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, reported that three men claiming to be British citizens were captured at Tora Bora, a mountain stronghold of al-Qaida and Taliban die-hards that U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan forces overran last month.
Two, identified as Shakir Abdul Rahim and Nabil Said, reportedly were being interrogated in Kabul. The third, identified as Mohammed Amin, was too badly wounded to be questioned. They are believed to be of Saudi, Indian and Pakistani ancestry.
—The Saudi newspaper Okaz quoted Pakistani Interior Minister Moin Haidar as saying Pakistan recently detained 240 Saudis and will extradite to the United States any believed to be affiliated with bin Laden. They were said to have entered Pakistan from Tora Bora and Afghan cities in recent weeks. U.S. and Pakistani investigators were questioning them, the newspaper said.
—Anti-Taliban troops said Sunday they plan to starve out seven heavily armed al-Qaida members holed up in a Kandahar hospital for a month. The troops said they expect the standoff to end within a week.
—Troops from Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands all were scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan over the next several days to take part in peacekeeping and other operations. The largest single contingent will be France's 130 soldiers.