Afghan commander arrested on suspicion of links to al-Qaida

Tuesday, December 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) _ Anti-Taliban forces detained a top Afghan commander in eastern Afghanistan for alleged ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, officials said Tuesday.

Awal Gul, who played a key role in persuading Taliban commanders to surrender Nangarhar province to a council of tribal leaders, was arrested Sunday, said Mohammed Zaman, the province's defense chief.

``We have arrested Awal Gul because he was in contact with al-Qaida forces,'' Zaman said, refusing to elaborate.

Gul helped the Taliban when its forces moved into Nangarhar in 1996 and established close links with bin Laden and his terrorist network, said Atiqullah Racham, a military aide to provincial governor Abdul Qadir.

This month, anti-Taliban troops backed by U.S. bombing overran the Tora Bora cave complex, a major hide-out of al-Qaida fighters in Nangarhar. On Monday, Afghan militia commanders said most of the Tora Bora caves once occupied by al-Qaida forces have been cleaned out.

Many al-Qaida members are still believed to be on the run, with some trying to flee east into Pakistan.

``We didn't want to arrest him the first day we took over Jalalabad. We wanted to first capture Tora Bora, then arrest Awal Gul,'' Racham said. ``He thought he might get a big position in the new government, but the (governing council) wants to arrest anyone who had contact with al-Qaida.''

Racham said he didn't believe Gul's arrest would have any impact on the stability of Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan.

Gul commanded a small militia loyal to Yunnis Khalis, a conservative Pashtun tribal elder who was an important leader in the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Khalis, an Egypt-educated expert on Islamic law, welcomed the rise of the Taliban in 1996.

Today, Khalis is elderly and too ill to leave his home. And while he maintains a small militia, his role in eastern Afghan politics is limited to elder statesman and he holds no formal title in the new government.