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Fugitive Taliban reported to be regrouping

| Monday, May 6, 2002

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Biding their time on the instructions of elusive leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban are regrouping in mountain hide-outs, waiting for the Afghan government to falter, a Taliban intelligence official in hiding said Sunday.

The official, Obeidullah, was an important member of the Taliban command structure as the deputy of Qari Ahmadullah, the intelligence chief targeted and killed by the U.S.-led coalition in a bombing raid in December in eastern Afghanistan. Obeidullah oversaw Kargai, the military training camp where al-Qaida and other radicals trained north of Kabul.

"We are not unhappy, afraid or finished. We are just waiting, gathering our strength," Obeidullah said.

He said Omar, though high on the U.S. wanted list, is safe in Afghanistan and continues to lead the Taliban. But the man the Taliban call "the guest" — Osama bin Laden — "could be anywhere."

"He could be in Afghanistan, or Chechnya or Yemen," Obeidullah said.

Obeidullah said senior members of both Taliban and al-Qaida move relatively freely in Afghanistan despite the six-month-old war against terrorism.

Omar himself recently has been to Shah-e-Kot, scene of the largest U.S. ground assault in the war. The Taliban leader has spent 20 days in the stark, arid region of eastern Afghanistan since the assault in March, Obeidullah said.

The meeting with Obeidullah in Peshawar underscored that senior fugitives of the U.S.-led war on terror are able to find safety in neighboring Pakistan, one of Washington's chief allies in the campaign. In recent weeks U.S. Special Forces have joined Pakistani troops in search patrols along the border.

The interview was arranged through an intermediary. A telephone call directed the car to a nondescript hotel near a bustling market, then to a ramshackle kiosk.

A boy wearing the woolen cap now associated with Afghanistan's interim regime emerged, followed by Obeidullah, who quickly got into the car.

The car then wove through a maze of narrow streets, past open sewers and narrow buildings jammed up one against the other, to a padlocked room hidden behind high walls and steel gates.

From his hide-out in Peshawar, a city of 1.5 million about 30 miles west of the Afghan border, Obeidullah said the Taliban in Afghanistan were waiting — and confident.

"There aren't just 100 or 200 of us — there are thousands <#201> (and) we know how to fight a guerrilla war," Obeidullah said.

"We will give this government time to show the people how they aren't able to govern, then we will show our face more and more."

With bitter fighting between rival warlords turning cities and towns in eastern Afghanistan into war zones, many people there say they long for the relative security that existed during the Taliban rule.

Obeidullah said fugitive Taliban are taking advantage of the anarchy in eastern Afghanistan's Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces to establish small cells in villages and towns throughout the east and south and create the core of a revived Taliban movement.

In eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. special forces and their allies are concentrating their resources, other Afghan sources say senior figures such as Egyptian Ayman al Zawahri, bin Laden's lieutenant and convicted killer of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the No. 3 man in the Taliban movement, have been sighted.

Pakistan's intelligence service, the InterServices Intelligence, supported the Taliban until the country's about-face six months ago to join the U.S.-led war on terror, and its search for Taliban is not an all-out effort, Obeidullah said.

"They aren't really looking for us but we have to be careful," he said, stroking his wispy black beard, hid while in public by a portion of the black turban worn by the Taliban.

Still, Obeidullah was jumpy. Although the room was padlocked from within, a knock on the door, a horn blaring sent his eyes glancing nervously toward the door.

"This is the pressure I feel," he said. "I won't stay in Peshawar for long."

Obeidullah expressed confidence he would have no trouble returning to his homeland, despite coalition forces scouring mountains along the border.

"It's a long border, with so many ways to cross," he explained. "If not one way then I will go another. It's not a problem. I just came from Afghanistan."

"It was easy."

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