- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2001

U.S. military forces have five al Qaeda guerrillas in custody, but the Pentagon believes alliance forces have freed some terrorists against the wishes of the United States.
Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters yesterday that several wanted terrorists no longer were being held by the anti-Taliban Afghan alliance.
The five prisoners, aboard a Navy ship, are being interrogated, "and you should know that there will be more detainees coming," Adm. Stufflebeem said during a briefing at the Pentagon.
Asked whether the opposition had let go a Taliban military commander and an Islamic radical who were reported captured two weeks ago, Adm. Stufflebeem said, "Well, we certainly suspect so.
"We've made clear the intentions of specific individuals whom we would like to get, and we certainly hope that all opposition groups and that all forces would help in that regard," Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Still, the admiral said Afghanistan has a history "built on bartering" where "allegiances can be bought."
"And so we suspect that that has in fact been happening," he said.
En route to Brussels for a NATO meeting, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned the Afghan opposition, which swept to victory over the Taliban in recent weeks with the help of U.S. air power and American ground troops, not to cut deals that would free wanted Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.
Adm. Stufflebeem said he did not have specific names of wanted terrorists or freed Taliban members, but noted that "we have seen anecdotally the instances where there were a lot of Taliban forces in Kandahar, and when they actually capitulated control of Kandahar, there weren't that many forces to be found."
"And so you can make a pretty good assumption there that there was some coordination done with individuals who would pay for their escape and move and whatever," he said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said opposition forces, backed by Army commandos and Marines, are mopping up the last al Qaeda forces in caves near Tora Bora, after a major drive to take control of the area over the weekend.
"Tora Bora has continued to remain our top priority," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "While over the weekend we were attacking al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban still in caves there, there are still isolated pockets of al Qaeda fighting in this area, so we're not done yet."
Adm. Stufflebeem noted reports of sporadic firing from cornered al Qaeda fighters in caves at one of two valleys near Tora Bora.
Some 30 al Qaeda fighters have been captured by the opposition, and about 200 are dead, according to news agency reports from the region.
So far, five Taliban or al Qaeda guerrillas are in U.S. military custody, aboard the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea. All are non-Afghans, including American John Walker, defense officials said.
"There are numbers of opposition groups that have or are holding Taliban or al Qaeda members," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "Our support teams are getting in to do interrogation of some of those, and so we had asked for some."
U.S. bombing raids continued around Tora Bora but were less intense than those carried out during the past week, defense officials said.
Three Marines, meanwhile, were evacuated out of Kandahar after they were injured by an exploding mine.
One Marine's leg was amputated; one suffered a hand injury; and the other suffered a head injury. Adm. Stufflebeem said the Marines were moved to regional medical facilities. He described their conditions as serious.
The Pentagon released video showing a U.S. bombing attack on one Tora Bora cave with two Joint Direct Attack Munitions satellite-guided, 2,000-pound bombs that destroyed the complex and killed an unknown number of al Qaeda fighters.
"Every cave that is entered is being treated as a hostile environment," Adm. Stufflebeem said, describing the cave warfare as "a very slow, methodical process of confirming that these caves are now empty or no longer usable."
The opposition forces, backed by about 80 U.S. Special Forces troops, are working their way from within the valleys toward the mountain ridges.
Asked whether large numbers of al Qaeda fighters are fleeing, Adm. Stufflebeem said catching them is like "searching for fleas on a dog."
"If you see one and you focus on the one, you don't know how many others are getting away, I think is the sense that I have of it," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld said, "The fact of the matter is there are still any number of al Qaeda in that country."
Haji Zahir, an Afghan commander with forces in Tora Bora, said anti-Taliban forces had overrun all the major al Qaeda positions. "There is no fighting as they have lost their ammunition, their confidence and their food," he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters on Sunday that the intense battle for Tora Bora included more than 200 bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft and the firing of more than 200 105 mm howitzer rounds and thousands of small-arms rounds.
"There was one instance where the explosion, the plume, has gone 2 kilometers [high]," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
"That is to say what they hit in the caves and the tunnels was so filled with ordnance and they hit it so successfully, that the smoke and the plume covers over 2 kilometers. They've captured a number of al Qaeda; they've killed a number of al Qaeda; they've wounded a number of al Qaeda."

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