Target of U.S. raids was large munitions storage facility

Saturday, January 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A site in Afghanistan that U.S. soldiers thought was an al-Qaida terrorist hide-out was discovered to hold a huge stockpile of Taliban munitions, Pentagon officials said.

Army Special Forces soldiers raided two military compounds at the site Wednesday, killing about 15 enemy fighters and taking 27 prisoners. One American soldier was wounded in the ankle by enemy fire.

Instead of al-Qaida terrorists, the soldiers found the compounds held mostly Taliban militiamen, hundreds of mortars and rockets and an estimated half-million rounds of small arms ammunition, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.

Each U.S. raiding team comprised five to 10 soldiers, officials said, although many more were nearby in helicopters and aircraft, prepared to join the battle if necessary.

Victoria Clarke, spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the prisoners were mainly Taliban fighters, including some ``relatively senior'' figures of the Islamic militia that ruled Afghanistan until its overthrow last month.

Stufflebeem said they are being screened and interrogated at Kandahar airport, where almost 300 other prisoners are held.

Besides the 27 new captives, Afghan authorities turned over five more prisoners to U.S. forces in Kandahar on Thursday or Friday, Stufflebeem said. He had no details, including their identities.

The transfer of prisoners from Kandahar to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remained on hold Friday. Stufflebeem said Rumsfeld made the decision to stop the transfers.

``I do not know when the secretary intends to restart or if he eventually does intend to restart sending detainees down there,'' he said.

Rumsfeld is to fly to Guantanamo Bay on Sunday to inspect the facility and talk to military guards and commanders, officials said. He will be accompanied by four senators: Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Stufflebeem described the Hazar Qadam compounds as munitions storage areas. He and other officials indicated that little else of value was found. Among munitions found there and destroyed by an AC-130 gunship:

_400 60mm mortar rounds.

_300 rocket-propelled grenades.

_300 100mm rockets.

_250 automatic grenade launchers.

_More than 500,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition.

It was not clear how long the munitions had been there. The site was not bombed during the U.S.-led air campaign.

Stufflebeem said there was no indication before the raids that suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, were there. He said he had no comment to offer about progress in the hunt for either of those figures, who remain at large.

He also said another Predator unmanned U.S. surveillance plane has crashed, the second this week and at least the fourth since the anti-terror campaign began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Stufflebeem said the Predator, flown remotely by operators on the ground, crashed in Afghanistan at 3 a.m. Friday local time, or 7 p.m. EST Thursday. As in the other cases, hostile fire was not involved, Stufflebeem said.

On Tuesday, a Predator crashed in Pakistan while returning to its base. Two others crashed last fall.

The drone, flying as high as 25,000 feet, can take pictures and listen to enemy communications. A Predator system, including a ground control station and four aircraft, costs about $25 million.

Predators have seen heavy use in Afghanistan, including by the CIA, which has flown some armed with missiles on their wings to attack Taliban and al-Qaida targets.