Americans get another al-Qaida prisoner, prepare to step up search in Tora Bora caves

Saturday, December 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The American military patrolled the skies over Afghanistan on Saturday in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his soldiers as a new leader was installed in Kabul.

And as Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's prime minister, the Pentagon investigated and denied charges that the only U.S. air strike in days had mistakenly killed Afghan tribal leaders traveling to his inauguration. The Pentagon has said the dead were believed to be Taliban leaders on the move.

Another captured al-Qaida member was brought to the jail manned by Marines in the southern city of Kandahar, bringing prisoners in U.S. custody there to 16 and overall to 24. The new prisoner was not considered senior, an official in Washington said.

The other eight prisoners are on the Navy's USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea, the detention facility for more important figures in the Taliban and the terrorist network.

Reconnaissance planes looked for targets Saturday and bombers were at the ready. But like earlier in the week, no ordnance was reported dropped. The air support part of the war has drastically slowed since Afghan fighters claimed control of al-Qaida's last stronghold, and the last major piece of enemy territory, in Tora Bora.

Up to 300 al-Qaida fighters could still be hiding in forests, valleys _ and possibly caves _ around the largely abandoned cave complex, another defense official said. The Pentagon prepared to hasten the search of the region for them and leader bin Laden, not because they had good information that they are there, but in case they are, officials said.

American troops began entering the caves during the week to take out documents and other intelligence materials, leaving the chasing of fighters mainly to Afghan militiamen, one official said.

In a planned stepped up operation, more American troops will be sent there to help look for evidence, people, weapons and clues on his whereabouts, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.

The movement of new forces might not come for several days, Pentagon officials have said.

The war's commander Gen. Tommy Franks is said to be trying to figure the right balance of missions, given that some troops must be kept in Kandahar to handle detainees while others are protecting other areas.

Rumsfeld declined to say how many soldiers would take part but said it will include troops from other countries as well.

Bin Laden, held responsible by the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks, has eluded coalition forces including Afghans, Americans and British special forces. Military officials had said bin Laden was probably in the Tora Bora area, but they have found no sign of him after al-Qaida largely abandoned the area this week.

Officials acknowledge they don't know whether their No. 1 target in the war is dead or alive. And if he's alive, they don't know where he is.

In China, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf says he's ``reasonably sure'' that bin Laden has not escaped to his country and that there's a ``great possibility'' the al-Qaida leader is dead.

Meanwhile, military officials insisted that an air strike late Thursday killed Taliban leaders, not anti-Taliban tribal leaders traveling to Kabul for Saturday's inauguration of the new, post-Taliban government.

The strike included Air Force AC-130 gunships and Navy F-14 and F/A-18 jets from the aircraft carrier USS Stennis, officials said. Ten to 12 vehicles were hit, as well as a compound with command facilities where the convoy originated, military officials said.

An Afghan official said the trucks were bringing tribal leaders loyal to the new government to the capital and that dozens were killed.

At U.S. Central Command, spokesman Maj. Brad Lowell said people in the convoy returned fire on the American plane, shooting two shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapons.

But Lowell said officials doubled checked details of the incident with forces already on the ground in the area, using photos taken after the strike and through other intelligence means, and concluded Saturday as it had before that the casualties were Taliban.