4 escapees from Afghan detention center elude troops for second day

Afghan workers speculate men had inside help

July 13, 2005|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Four Arab escapees believed to be members of al-Qaida eluded a U.S. military dragnet for a second day yesterday as Islamic extremists celebrated the breakout from a detention center here as proof of American weakness.

U.S. and allied Afghan troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships set up checkpoints and searched villages that surround the Bagram airbase, about 25 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The base houses the detention center where several hundred suspected militants are held and serves as the headquarters for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Residents of several villages and Afghan officials said soldiers were looking in fields, gardens and the few tree-covered areas on the Shomali plain.

Soldiers did not search any houses in the area, said Qabir Ahmad, district commissioner for the Afghan government in Bagram, where al-Qaida and its Taliban militia allies have few, if any, supporters.

The suspects were reported missing from the heavily guarded facility Monday morning, according to the U.S. military. Posters distributed by U.S. troops identify the prisoners as Abdullah Hashimi of Syria, Mahmoud Ahmad Mohammed of Kuwait, Mahmoud Fathami of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Hassan of Libya.

Lt. Cindy Moore, a U.S. military spokesman, said the Criminal Investigation Division is trying to determine how four dangerous prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits could disappear from the most heavily guarded military base in Afghanistan.

Moore refused to say whether searchers were following any specific leads in the manhunt.

"Certainly there's an aggressive search ongoing," she said. Several current and former Afghan workers at the base insisted the al-Qaida suspects would need help from someone on the base to escape.

"As far as I know, a mosquito cannot get out of the Bagram airbase," said Imran Mujahidm, an Afghan worker. "Then how could these people get out and escape?"

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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