Americans hold five prisoners from Afghanistan, look for more
WASHINGTON (AP) — The American military had three al-Qaida fighters in custody on a ship Monday and kept up an intense hunt for more with help from Afghan tribal leaders. Osama bin Laden remained at large.
As tribal militiamen and U.S. special forces pursued remnants of al-Qaida in the caves of eastern Afghanistan, three captured foreign members of the terrorist group were held with two Taliban fighters — an American and an Australian — on the USS Peleliu, officials said.
“There are still any number of al-Qaida loose in that country,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.
“That is why we are there, that is why we are chasing,” he said on his plane as he flew to a NATO meeting in Brussels, Belgium.
Pakistan also had dozens of prisoners it had caught fleeing Afghanistan, but couldn’t turn them over to American troops because planned U.S. detention facilities were not ready, said one defense official.
Also, Rumsfeld said he had heard of 30 or 31 prisoners who were probably in the custody of Afghan opposition around Tora Bora. Many of their identities remained unclear, so it was impossible to say definitively whether any were high-ranking leaders, he said.
“It’s going to take time and energy and effort and people will be killed in the process of trying to find them,” Rumsfeld said.
“The search is now on cave to cave to find more and to interrogate more,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told a Pentagon press conference. “Now becomes the more difficult and slower process of confirming who is still left to fight, or is this cave now empty and was there evidence that somebody was recently there.”
He said opposition forces hold hundreds of prisoners and U.S. forces are attempting to question them to find out which might be able to provide intelligence, which might be wanted by the United States and so on.
Americans are constructing detention centers at Kandahar airport and at a base set up last month south of the city, which they call Camp Rhino.
“There’ll be more detainees coming,” said Stufflebeem.
But perhaps not as many as the Pentagon wanted.
Earlier this month officials said there were some 5,000 to 6,000 prisoners being held by opposition throughout Afghanistan. It was unclear what had become of the thousands, but Stufflebeem acknowledged that some had bribed their way free.
“We’ve made clear the … specific individuals whom we would like to get … but this region, this country has a history built on bartering,” Stufflebeem said.
Following surrender talks in the last major Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, for instance, the entire Taliban senior leadership — wanted for harboring the terrorists in Afghanistan — escaped, a defense official said. The two dozen leaders were there during surrender negotiations with Afghan opposition, but gone when the city fell.
“So you can make a pretty good assumption there that there was some coordination done with individuals who would pay for their escape and movement and whatever,” Stufflebeem said.
Stufflebeem said Pakistan had captured “a relatively modest number” of fighters — less than 100.
Another official said the Pentagon has asked Pakistan to continue to hold them while U.S. troops finish building the detention centers at Kandahar airport and at Camp Rhino.
More than 200 foreigners from al-Qaida were killed in battles culminating nine weeks of attacks by American warplanes in the air and eastern alliance forces on the ground.
Hundreds more were believed to be on the run.
Asked what was the latest thinking on where bin Laden might be, Stufflebeem said: “Anybody’s guess.”
Among those on the Peleliu was David Hicks, a 26-year-old Australian captured while fighting with the Taliban, the Australian government said.
Before the weekend, the only known person in U.S. hands was John Walker, a 20-year-old American found with Taliban forces last month.
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