Los Angeles Times

TAMPA, Fla. More than 40 sites in Afghanistan have been identified as possible laboratories for weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. commander of the Afghan campaign said yesterday, as Pentagon leaders disclosed that they are focusing the search for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leaders on two areas of the country.

During a briefing at his Tampa headquarters, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, described progress in the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Samples of seized substances were being sent to laboratories in the United States for testing, he said.

Late yesterday, the Pentagon reported that U.S. aircraft had bombed a “non-trivial” compound that has housed leaders of Bin Laden”s al-Qaida terrorist network southeast of Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban”s sole remaining stronghold. Officials said they did not know of any injuries or deaths, or who was inside the facility at the time.

Pitched fighting continued near Kandahar yesterday, as more U.S. Marines streamed into an airfield southwest of the city to establish a forward base.

In the north, opposition forces consolidated their control with the surrender of thousands more Taliban fighters who had fled the fallen stronghold of Kunduz.

The largest group of fighters an estimated 6,000 gave themselves up in several waves that began Monday evening and continued yesterday, Northern Alliance officials said.

But the fate of the surrendered fighters remained uncertain. Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is believed to have offered them safe passage to join comrades defending Kandahar an outcome likely to displease both the United States and other elements of the Northern Alliance.

U.S. officials have said none of the foreign Taliban fighters whose ranks are believed to include some bin Laden associates should be allowed to escape. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said those who did not die on the battlefield should be captured.

The suspected weapons laboratories across Afghanistan have attracted the U.S. military”s attention since Taliban forces surrendered control of most of northern Afghanistan three weeks ago. Journalists who have visited the sites have found suspicious documents and equipment, including a vial, labeled as the poison gas sarin, found in an abandoned house in Kabul, the capital.

Sarin was used by the members of the Japanese extremist group Aum Supreme Truth in its terrorist strike on a Tokyo subway station in 1995. But Franks said U.S. forces have not found any substance that they can identify as a specific agent.

“If I thought I had my hands on a vial of sarin gas, I would be a bit more circuitous,” Franks said. “No, we have not found a substance that we believe is a specific thing.”

He said U.S. forces consider it a high priority not to leave behind any weapons of mass destruction. “That is non-negotiable,” he said. “We will not leave weapons of mass destruction in this country.”

Pentagon officials have sought to remain vague on where they have concentrated their search for Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership. But Franks gave the first general indications, saying the military has found “two areas that are very interesting to us.”

One is the area surrounding Kandahar the second is a triangular region in the north from Kabul to the Khyber Pass on the border with Pakistan to the city of Jalalabad. The second region includes the village of Tora Bora, long rumored a haven for Bin Laden. Residents have recently claimed to have seen him.

Both regions are pocked with caves, tunnels and reinforced bunkers, which moujahedeen fighters used to elude the Soviets during their 1979-1989 occupation. Officials added that these weren”t the only areas where they are searching for the enemy leaders.

Rumsfeld, who appeared with Franks, said the $25 million reward that Washington has offered for bin Laden is helping produce a rising volume of intelligence tips. “There is no question that there are people who have found that reward money is an incentive and are busily engaged in trying to earn it,” he said.

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