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Army to replace Marines at Kandahar, more detainees arrive

MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Marines prepared to hand over a base in southern Afghanistan to soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as more suspected Taliban or al-Qaida prisoners arrived there Sunday, military officials said.

The Army soldiers will take over operations at the airport base in Kandahar, where Marines have been preparing runways for humanitarian flights and building facilities to hold hundreds of detainees. Another 14 captives arrived at the Kandahar base, bringing the total there to 139 on Sunday, said a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. Mike Humm.

Interrogators from the military, FBI and CIA are questioning the prisoners about the al-Qaida terrorist network and the whereabouts of its leader, Osama bin Laden. On Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said bin Laden probably is not dead.

“The latest intelligence we had indicates that the high probabilities are that bin Laden is still alive,” Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “Where he is, is a question mark. The trail has gone cold as to whether he’s still in the caves of Tora Bora or, in fact, has slipped out into Pakistan.”

Graham offered no further details and said he could not say why he believes bin Laden is still alive.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reported Sunday evening on its Internet site that classified U.S. intelligence documents it obtained show representatives of bin Laden contacted Iranian intelligence agents in the mid-1990s in an attempt to forge an alliance against the United States.

But the paper said there was no indication whetheer anything ever came of the contacts and quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying “there is no credible evidence that points in that direction of any alliance today.”

U.S. officials believe bin Laden was in the mountainous Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan at least until mid-December. In a new videotape, the leader of the al-Qaida terror network wanted in connected with the Sept. 11 attacks implied he was speaking in early or mid-December.

Since then, conflicting reports have emerged about whether bin Laden is dead or alive, in Afghanistan or in neighboring Pakistan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Sunday praised the Bush administration’s handling of the anti-terrorism war and said “we’ve got to keep the pressure on” to find bin Laden.

“We’ve done everything we know how to do, in searching the caves and using the intelligence tools that we have available to us,” Daschle said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ” So I think, by and large, it’s been done correctly. We just need to keep doing what we are doing.”

The Marines being replaced at the Kandahar base are part of two “Marine Expeditionary Units” based on amphibious assault ships now in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. Their replacement in Afghanistan will give the Marines “the opportunity to prepare for future missions,” Humm said. He said he could not say when the transfer would be complete. Defense officials have said preparations for the change began Friday.

The 14 new prisoners at Kandahar came from the northern Afghan town of Shibergan, where U.S. forces are sorting through scores of suspected Taliban or al-Qaida forces captured by Afghan forces.

The United States is taking those who officials believe might have useful information about bin Laden’s terrorist network or could be charged with terrorism or war crimes. U.S. forces have been moving batches of detainees from Shibergan to Kandahar since Friday.

The total number of prisoners under U.S. control reached 150 Sunday, including eight aboard the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea. U.S. forces also are holding two prisoners at the Bagram air base north of Kabul and one in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

An undetermined number of those prisoners eventually will be sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Construction of facilities for the prisoners there is expected to take several weeks.

Cuban officials have criticized U.S. plans to keep prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay base, which the United States has held since 1903. The island’s Communist government says the base should have been closed and returned to Cuban control decades ago.

Members of Congress said Sunday they agreed with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the Guantanamo Bay base was the best of unpleasant alternatives for holding the prisoners.

“At least it’s a good place to hold them, to get them out of harm’s way, so they don’t reorganize elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe or in the United States,” Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said on CNN.

A U.S. CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter had a hard landing northwest of Kandahar Saturday, Humm said. No one was injured, but the helicopter’s nose landing gear was damaged, Humm said.

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On the Net: Pentagon: http://www.defenselink.mil


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