By Ellen Knickmeyer
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A one-time financial supporter of the Taliban was being questioned Wednesday after he turned up voluntarily at the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan and offered information, Pentagon officials said.
There was no immediate word on whether he had been able to help investigators trace the strands in the complex web of support of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, which was sheltered by the Taliban.
But investigators were “jumping with joy” over the prospect of questioning him intensively, said 1st Lt. James Jarvis, a Marine spokesman at Kandahar.
U.S. officials initially said the man was a financial official of al-Qaida, but Pentagon officials later said he is someone who had given money to the Taliban and had not been a member of the militia, which ruled Afghanistan until being driven out in fighting late last year.
Jarvis said the man, whose name and nationality was not revealed, remained on the base Wednesday but was not being detained. A Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity that he was not on the U.S. list of wanted men.
Jarvis said the man came Tuesday to the Kandahar airport, where thousands of U.S. troops are based and a detention center holds hundreds of captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
Later Wednesday, a Marine color guard saluted as a flag-draped coffin holding the remains of the last of seven Marines killed in a crash a week ago was loaded onto a C-17 at Kandahar airport and flown to Germany en route to Dover Air Force Base.
The crash of the tanker plane in Pakistan was the most deadly single incident for U.S. forces in the Afghanistan campaign.
The runway was darkened to prevent the plane from becoming a target for attackers.
Overnight, the third planeload of detainees in less than a week left Kandahar overnight for a high-security jail at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they will be interrogated. Jarvis said that one of the 30 prisoners was sedated because he expressed a fear of flying.
Soldiers of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which eventually is to take over the Kandahar base from the Marines, began their first patrols Wednesday, Army spokesman Maj. Ignacio Perez said. Two infantry companies are in place and will be taking positions on the perimeter in next few days.
Active threats remain outside the perimeter. Marine patrols this week spotted men who appeared to be armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers heading toward an abandoned mud house outside the perimeter, said U.S. Marine Capt. Dan Greenwood.
The Marines sent out patrols to investigate. They did not find the men, but discovered a cache of rockets and mortar rounds and some tunnels, which were later blown up.
The same area was used by gunmen last week to launch an attack when the first C-17 transport plane took off with the first batch of 20 prisoners heading for Guantanamo.
Troops on the perimeter frequently spot suspicious figures just outside the base.
“They act like sheep herders, but these sheep herders carry radios and call stuff in,” said Marine Sgt. Ethan Ramsey, 22, of White Plains, Mo. “The weird part of it is, they can just appear in an instant. There’s got to be tunnels.”
Amid concerns about the danger posed by al-Qaida holdouts still in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended his decision not to send a large U.S. ground force to hunt down bin Laden when al-Qaida fighters made a final stand at the Tora Bora cave complex last month.
“The larger number of Americans on the ground might very well have hastened his departure as opposed to delayed it,” Rumsfeld said. “Had we had a lot of people on the ground … you would have gotten everyone in Afghanistan against you, as opposed to just the Taliban and al-Qaida.”
As countries prepare for next week’s donor conference on aid to Afghanistan in Tokyo, World Bank President James Wolfensohn said rebuilding the country will cost $15 billion over the next 10 years and said it is crucial to get money flowing quickly so the interim government can hire civil servants and start functioning.
The new government owes $70 million to 235,000 civil servants who haven’t received salaries in at least eight months, Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, said in Kabul, the capital.
In other developments:
Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.