By Kathy Gannon
KABUL, Afghanistan – A convoy of 80 British Royal Marines entered the Afghan capital today, the first contingent of multinational peacekeepers launching a six-month mission to protect the new interim government.
The line of military vehicles under a helicopter escort arrived in Kabul from Bagram air base, 40 miles to the north, bringing with them a group of Afghan dignitaries who flew in from abroad to attend the installation Saturday of the new administration.
The trucks traveled a road heavily mined on either side from decades of war and between craters blasted out by U.S. warplanes during the past three months.
The British soldiers were the vanguard of a force that will grow to 3,000 to 5,000, mandated by the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to ensure the safety of the new government. The council also allowed the peacekeepers to use force if necessary – a mandate challenged by the incoming Afghan defense minister.
Leaders of Afghan factions from around the country began congregating in Kabul for the inauguration of the 30-member interim government, led by Hamid Karzai, a southern Pashtun tribal leader who carries the blessings of exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition that battled Afghanistan’s former rulers, the Taliban militia, announced that 7,000 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters were in custody, the vast majority held by Afghan factions.
In Islamabad, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, Kenton Keith, said coalition forces were screening the detainees to identify leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.
“The situation changes almost by the hour, but I believe the latest number of prisoners to be around 7,000 in total,” Keith told a news conference.
“It is essential to find out who was who within the al-Qaida network. To separate those who were the executives, the ones that gave orders, the sympathizers, the late-joiners, and the true believers, but without executive powers,” Keith said. “This is a process that takes time.”
Keith said he had no details on when they were captured or where they were being held. Twenty-three have been handed over to U.S. authorities for questioning, U.S. officials say.
The whereabouts of bin Laden, accused in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, was unknown.
U.S. special forces soldiers and Afghan fighters have been searching the caves of Tora Bora, a complex in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, for clues to bin Laden and his lieutenants after a military offensive drove al-Qaida fighters out of the region.
But increasingly cold and snowy weather has complicated the search. Abandoned caves and bunkers may be booby-trapped or mined, and Pentagon officials believe some fighters may still be around to ambush search parties.
The caves also may hold the bodies of al-Qaida fighters – possibly bin Laden himself – or contain documents useful in the investigation of Sept. 11 and other terrorist actions against U.S. interests.
In Kabul, the mutlinational force faces a delicate mission of keeping peace among the numerous armed factions that are participating in the new government – and dealing with a populace that while sick of warfare is not entirely comfortable with foreign troops.
“We are here to help the administration. We are not here with guns blazing looking for a fight,” said Maj. Guy Richardson, a British spokesman in Kabul.
The Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to allow the new government and the troops themselves “to operate in a secure environment.” The peacekeeping force was formed under U.N. Chapter VII, which allows the use of force.
But the incoming Afghan defense minister, Mohammed Fahim, insisted on Thursday that the peacekeepers cannot use force, disarm fighters or interfere in Afghan affairs. He called the mission “symbolic” and said Afghans should be responsible for security.
Many Kabul residents welcomed the peacekeepers, but said they wanted them to stay only as long as necessary.
“They should leave Afghanistan when we are sure of peace,” said Ghulam Dastigir Khan.
“We don’t want them to stay forever. We are Muslims. They are not,” said Khan, a cigarette vendor who hopes the soldiers will boost his income of about a dollar a day.
In northern Afghanistan, there were conflicting reports about the cause of a fragmentation grenade blast at a busy market in Mazar-e-Sharif that wounded about 100 people.
Some reports said it was thrown into the crowd. “It could be those who are still close to the Taliban who don’t want the northern alliance to be in power,” said Mohammed Anwar Akhjoh, head of a prominent Shiite party in the northern alliance, which seized Mazar-e-Sharif last month.
But a senior police officer said the explosion was an accident. “A grenade fell off of a soldier accidentally, and some people were injured. This was not terrorism. This was an accident,” said Gen. Shujaddin, who uses only one name.
After initial reports that security had been stepped up, reporters said Mazar-e-Sharif appeared normal today, the Muslim day of prayer.
In Pakistan, just across the border from Tora Bora, paramilitary troops searched for a third day for seven al-Qaida fighters who escaped while being taken to prison. They were among 156 Arabs and other foreign volunteers captured on Tuesday as they fled Tora Bora.
Seven Pakistani guards and at least nine al-Qaida fighters were killed in the escape and the subsequent manhunt in the craggy border region.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, visited Pakistan’s army headquarters Thursday and met Gen. Mohammed Aziz Khan, head of the committee of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
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