US forces intensified their hunt for Osama bin Laden yesterday, even as Afghanistan's interim Prime Minister declared that terrorism had been "largely" beaten in his war-ravaged country.

Following a brief rest over Christmas, US forces were going back into the caves of the Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan to search for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.

Up to 500 marines may be drafted in to scour the caves, which were the last major stronghold of bin Laden's Al Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan until a combination of US bombing and ground attacks by tribal fighters and American special forces drove the guerillas out more than a week ago.

Since then, nothing has been heard of bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the US.

Coalition sources have said it is quite possible bin Laden was killed in the onslaught on Tora Bora, but there are suspicions he may have fled Afghanistan, possibly into neighbouring Pakistan.

Yesterday, less than three months after the US-led coalition began military strikes, Afghanistan's interim Premier Hamid Karzai, speaking after a meeting of the interim cabinet, said he believed most of the terrorists who sheltered in the country under the previous Taliban regime were gone. "I think that terrorism is largely defeated in Afghanistan," he said.

Mr Karzai said his interim government would do what it could to track down bin Laden, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Although he could not say where Omar was hiding, Mr Karzai believed he was still in Afghanistan.

Acceptance of bin Laden's culpability for the events of September 11 appears to be growing in the Middle East.

In the first official Egyptian reaction, the Police Minister said the recently-released videotape in which bin Laden was shown rejoicing over the attacks, amounts to his "complete confession".

Meanwhile, in Kabul, Royal Marines were patrolling the streets.

The 200-strong British force was also working to repair the runway at Bagram airport, and to identify a suitable headquarters for the multinational security force.