Three mid-level Taliban commanders have also been arrested without a fight in an operation by US and Afghan troops in central Afghanistan, the officials said on Friday.

  

Ex-commander Wahid handed himself over to the authorities in southeastern Helmand province to take advantage of a planned amnesty announced by Kabul earlier this year, provincial intelligence chief Dad Muhammad Khan said.

  

US-backed President Hamid Karzai's administration has been in talks with a number of former Taliban leaders in recent months but has not announced the final details of the amnesty scheme.

  

Wahid has now moved to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he is expected to meet Karzai.

  

"He was a key Taliban commander. His surrender will help to bring other Taliban in," Khan said.

 

Unknown

  

It was unclear if the commander had been involved in any anti-government attacks since the Taliban government was ousted by a US-led military offensive in late 2001.

  

The Taliban sheltered al-Qaida mastermind Usama bin Ladin before and after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

  

An 18,000-strong US-led force remains in Afghanistan, where they are searching for Bin Ladin as well as fighters from the Taliban and al-Qaida.

  

"They were hiding in a house. We had intelligence about their presence. The house was surrounded, and there was no exchange of fire during the operation"

Muslim Ahmad, commander, Afghan National Army

An Afghan intelligence official in Kabul said Wahid had close ties with Mullah Umar, the spiritual leader of the ousted militia during their 1996-2001 rule of the war-shattered country.

   

Karzai has said that with the exception of a corps of about 150 fighters accused of war crimes, the country's remaining 1000 or so Taliban foot soldiers would be eligible for the government amnesty offer.

  

Spring offensive

 

Remnants of the Taliban have launched a spring offensive in the group's heartland in Afghanistan's south and southeast, with a series of bomb blasts and attacks targeting Afghan soldiers and police and US forces.

  

The three mid-level commanders were arrested on Thursday in the Charchino district of Uruzgan province, said Lieutenant General Muslim Ahmad, a commander of the Afghan National Army in Kandahar.

 

"They were hiding in a house. We had intelligence about their presence. The house was surrounded, and there was no exchange of fire during the operation," he said.

  

The detainees were handed over to coalition forces, he added.