By John J. Lumpkin
WASHINGTON – U.S. officials have taken custody of three al-Qaida fighters, and more than a dozen more prisoners captured by Afghan allies were being handed over to American forces Tuesday, the Pentagon said.
Meanwhile, a second American soldier was injured while trying to clear land mines in Afghanistan.
Approximately 15 new prisoners captured by northern opposition fighters were en route from a detention facility in the north to one the Marines just built at Kandahar airport, said Defense Department spokesman Richard McGraw.
He said he didn’t know whether they were al-Qaida or Taliban but indicated they had already been interviewed by Americans and were found to be people of interest to the Pentagon.
Their arrival would bring to about 20 the number of battlefield detainees in U.S. custody out of thousands that have been captured by allies in Afghanistan and at least dozens taken by Pakistan.
U.S. soldiers and CIA agents for weeks have been interviewing fighters captured by opposition forces to see if they are wanted by America or might be useful for intelligence.
“If so, we say, ‘We’d be happy to take these off your hands,” McGraw said.
At about 1 a.m. EST Tuesday a U.S. Army soldier was injured at Bagram Airport near Kabul during a mine-clearing operation, the Pentagon said.
McGraw said the soldier, whose name was not released, lost his foot in the blast.
Another soldier, 21-year-old Cpl. Chris Chandler, was sweeping for mines over the weekend at Kandahar airport in the south of the country when one went off, taking his foot.
The three al-Qaida prisoners already in custody have joined American Taliban John Walker and Australian Taliban David Hicks on board the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
Pentagon officials hope they will provide answers to the big question: Where are Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar? Prisoners also might have information on planned terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies, as well as details on the network’s finances and so on.
CIA and military personnel are known to be interviewing prisoners of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials are believed to have access to question Pakistan’s prisoners, as well. Many of the prisoners were caught fleeing the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan.
“The search is now on cave to cave to find more and to interrogate more,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told a Pentagon press conference Monday. “Now becomes the more difficult and slower process of confirming who is still left to fight, or is this cave now empty and was there evidence that somebody was recently there.”
Anti-Taliban tribal militiamen and U.S. special forces pursued remnants of al-Qaida in the caves of eastern Afghanistan.
Many were fleeing south and east into Pakistan, which has stationed troops along its border to catch them.
Pakistan had dozens of prisoners it had captured fleeing Afghanistan, officials said, but it couldn’t turn them over to American troops because planned U.S. detention facilities were not ready, said one defense official.
Americans are building detention centers at the Kandahar airport and at Camp Rhino to the south. The one at Kandahar can hold 100 now, McGraw said. Another official said it need will likely be expanded.
“There’ll be more detainees coming,” said Stufflebeem.
But perhaps not as many as the Pentagon wanted.
Earlier this month officials said there were some 5,000 to 6,000 prisoners being held by opposition groups throughout Afghanistan. It was unclear what had become of the thousands, but Stufflebeem acknowledged that some had bribed their way free.
Following surrender talks in the last major Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, for instance, the entire Taliban senior leadership – wanted for harboring the terrorists in Afghanistan – escaped, a defense official said. The two dozen leaders were there during surrender negotiations with Afghan opposition, but gone when the city fell.
“So you can make a pretty good assumption there that there was some coordination done with individuals who would pay for their escape and movement and whatever,” Stufflebeem said.
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