Al-Qaida suspects ditched prison clothing before escaping in Afghanistan

All four remain at large after three-day search

July 14, 2005|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - Four al-Qaida suspects who escaped from a U.S.-controlled air base changed out of their orange prison jumpsuits before making their getaway from the heavily guarded compound, a U.S. military spokesman said yesterday.

Last night, after three days of searching, U.S. and Afghan forces had not found the prisoners from Syria, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia, who were reported missing from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

"I'm hoping beyond hope that we find those four guys, but right now I can only report that the search is ongoing," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara.

No witnesses are known to have seen the breakout early Monday, he said. The prisoners apparently took off their orange jumpsuits and put on something less conspicuous before leaving the detention center, O'Hara said.

U.S. officials did not make clear where the men had found a change of clothes or whether they had received outside help in their escape, the first from the detention center.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Division is investigating the escape from the former Soviet air base, which is headquarters for the more than 16,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Bagram's detention center holds more than 450 inmates under strict security and secrecy. They include suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Quaida network and its allies in the Taliban militia.

Afghan workers who have passed through the detention center's outermost guard posts say the facility's floors are thick concrete, which would make tunneling difficult. The outer doors have combination locks.

A prisoner who got out of a cell, avoided guards and opened the combination locks would have to maneuver through numerous checkpoints and find a way past the base walls, which are under 24-hour watch by sentries.

Because escaping is so difficult, some Afghans are convinced that the men had inside help from someone familiar with base security.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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