Operatives of al-Qaida captured

U.S. troops catch 2 leading figures of terror organization

3 Taliban officials surrender

Computers, phones are seized, may have data on terror group

January 09, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. forces captured two senior al-Qaida operatives at a cave complex in Afghanistan and seized cell phones, computers and training manuals that could produce details about al-Qaida's terrorist operations, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The two operatives, who were not named, were among 14 al-Qaida fighters captured in the complex. The two were taken to Kandahar, where the U.S. military is detaining more than 300 other al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

"They were the ones of interest that we thought were senior enough where they might have the kind of information we're looking for in terms of future operations and so forth," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference.

The remaining dozen al-Qaida terrorists, who were seized by U.S. special forces working with Afghan fighters, are being held by Afghan officials, Myers said.

The huge Zhawar Kili training and supply complex in the eastern province of Paktia includes a network of caves, bunkers and buildings. It has been bombarded by U.S. aircraft since last Thursday. Officials said that terrorists had been regrouping at the complex after American air attacks in the Tora Bora region to the north.

Officials say they believe that the Zhawar Kili complex was also used as a staging area for al-Qaida fighters to try to slip into nearby Pakistan.

"We have found this complex to be very, very extensive," Myers said.

Meanwhile, three ministers of the defeated Taliban regime surrendered to Afghan officials.

"Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us," said Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesman for Gul Agha, the governor of the former Taliban power base of Kandahar.

It was not clear what exactly Pashtoon meant in saying the captured Taliban ministers were "joining with us." Myers made clear that he expects that any captured Taliban leaders would be turned over to the United States for prosecution.

Any Taliban member who surrendered, Pashtoon said, would be eligible for an amnesty - with the exception of the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose whereabouts are not known.

The ministers were released, but they were not permitted to move about freely. A senior U.S. military official said he expected them to be turned over to the United States.

The three are Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah, Minister of Mines Mullah Saadudin and Minister of Justice Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who is known for ordering the destruction of the country's famed Buddha statues at Bamiyan.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that the United States wants to capture all members of the Taliban leadership, as well as any al-Qaida members "from top to bottom."

Besides the two senior al-Qaida officials seized yesterday in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials say they have detained other senior Taliban and al-Qaida fighters but have released no names, except to say they are not the "top leaders."

Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain missing, and Pentagon officials said they would no longer speculate about where they might be.

Myers and other defense officials have said that the interrogation of detainees and other information seized have been valuable, resulting in arrests worldwide and serving to thwart terrorist operations. But officials have refused to provide details about such successes, and Myers would not elaborate yesterday.

The general said he expected the first group of Taliban and al-Qaida detainees to be transferred "soon" to the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but declined to be more specific. Most of the prisoners - 302 of the 346 - are being held at an air base outside Kandahar.

Military officials say they are concerned that as the prisoners' numbers swell, deadly riots could erupt, similar to the one that occurred at a prison outside the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

"Any time you have detainees who will sacrifice their life to kill you or what you stand for, that's the most dangerous type of individual you can have in your control," Myers said.

The remaining prisoners are being held in the cities of Bagram and Mazar-e Sharif, as well as aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan in the north Arabian Sea.

Meanwhile, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the military operation in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press in an interview that Pakistan had agreed to allow American forces to pursue al-Qaida or Taliban fugitives into that country from Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the Central Command, Maj. Brad Lowell, said no such missions have been undertaken.

But Lowell said an undisclosed number of U.S. special forces in Pakistan are screening prisoners in Pakistani custody and some will be moved by air or over land back into Afghanistan.

Myers echoed an earlier statement by Franks that U.S. troops are working with Pakistani military forces inside Pakistan to capture any Taliban leaders or al-Qaida operatives.

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