Franks says U.S. troops may investigate site where missile hit group thought to be al-Qaida members


Thursday, February 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan said Thursday that American ground forces may be dispatched to investigate the site where suspected al-Qaida members are reported to have been killed in a missile attack by a CIA-operated drone aircraft.

In Afghanistan, a regional leader said the missile killed seven members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, but in Washington several officials said they did not know the number or identities of victims.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told reporters the missile hit its intended target, but he said bad weather in the Zawar Khili area made it difficult to verify who was killed.

Other officials said the missile was fired Monday by a Predator unmanned aircraft operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. Among the factors that led U.S. officials to believe the targets were al-Qaida members was their Arab-style dress, the officials said.

In eastern Afghanistan, Wazir Khan, a brother of regional warlord Bacha Khan, said seven people were killed in the attack, but that bin Laden ``is not among those people.''

Franks was asked about the attack in an encounter with reporters after he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the status of the war in Afghanistan. Reporters also asked Franks whether he had considered the possibility of putting missiles on the Global Hawk, a high-altitude unmanned aircraft.

Franks said he had not considered that, but he offered praise for the usefulness of the smaller Predator.

``The work that's been done with Predator is really, really good work, and I think we've all seen that,'' he said. ``And I think the insights that we have gained from this operation may well inform a variety of unmanned systems.''

The general also said the United States continues to believe it struck a legitimate target in an attack on a convoy of vehicles outside the town of Khost on Dec. 20, which killed 12 people. Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan leader, has said the attack may have been a mistake and that U.S. commanders were misled by a local warlord into thinking the vehicle contained members of the Taliban militia.

``I remain convinced that there were people in that convoy that were precisely the people we wanted to strike,'' Franks said.

In his Senate testimony, Franks said the U.S. military will play a role in creating an Afghan national army, but that does not mean American troops will become part of an international peacekeeping force there.

``We intend to help them form an Afghan national army. There is no question about that,'' Franks said.

Specifics on how U.S. forces will carry out that effort remain under discussion, Franks said.

Franks said he will not recommend to President Bush that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan be phased out ``as long as there is a credible threat from puddles or pockets of al-Qaida or residual hard-core Taliban'' forces.

A senior Pentagon official, meanwhile, provided the most detailed breakdown so far of the nationalities among the Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A new group of 28 arrived at Guantanamo Bay on Thursday, raising the total prisoner population to 186. Excluding the newly arrived 28, the population included about 50 Saudis, about 30 Yemenis, about 25 Pakistanis, eight Algerians, three Britons and small numbers from Egypt, Australia, France, Russia, Belgium, Sweden and other countries, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. All or nearly all of those are believed to be al-Qaida fighters, as opposed to Taliban militia.

There also are 12 Afghan nationals among the prisoners, all of which are believed to be Taliban members. Among these is Mullah Fazel Mazloom, the Taliban army chief.