- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

U.S. military forces took three additional al Qaeda prisoners yesterday, boosting the number of detainees captured in the conflict to 23, the Pentagon said yesterday.

U.S. bombers are continuing to fly missions but have not dropped bombs in the past 48 hours, Pentagon spokesman Richard McGraw said.

In Afghanistan, Pakistani troops chased a group of escaped al Qaeda terrorists and recaptured about a dozen men who had a shootout with Pakistani troops. Seven al Qaeda prisoners remained at large.

"The search is going on," Sabir Ahmed, a Pakistani official, told Associated Press at a border checkpoint.

Hundreds of Pakistani troops, equipped with machine guns, patrolled the border near Tora Bora where hundreds of al Qaeda have fled since last weekend.

Mr. McGraw said that within the past two days as many as 275 aircraft missions had ended with the aircraft returning to aircraft carriers and land bases with their bombs.

The battle now involves "going cave-to-cave and house-to-house looking for evidence and people," Mr. McGraw said.

The spokesman could not confirm whether the U.S. Central Command planned to send several hundred Marines to Tora Bora to assist the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and some 80 U.S. Army Special Forces troops in searching for any remaining al Qaeda terrorists.

A defense official, however, said no final decision had been made on sending the Marines north. Currently, about 1,000 Marines are based near Kandahar and additional troops are stationed on Navy ships in the region.

The three new al Qaeda prisoners were flown to the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea from the Mazar-e-Sharif area, Mr. McGraw said.

The three men bring to 23 the total number of captured fighters, including American John Walker and an Australian al Qaeda fighter.

"Obviously they are al Qaeda leadership or we wouldn't be interested in them," Mr. McGraw said, noting that the men are being interrogated by U.S. military and intelligence officials.

Mr. McGraw said there is no new information on the whereabouts of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A U.S. official said bin Laden is either in the Tora Bora area or may have crossed the border into Pakistan. It is also possible the al Qaeda leader was killed in U.S. bombing raids, although there would be signs of that detected by U.S. intelligence if that were the case, the official said. U.S. military and intelligence surveillance is continuing to focus the search for bin Laden on eastern Afghanistan.

"We're doing surveillance missions in the Tora Bora area and along with mountainous border, using airborne, ground and satellite surveillance," Mr. McGraw said.

The surveillance effort also is focused on finding the "hundreds" of al Qaeda fighters fleeing Tora Bora, he said.

At Kandahar's airport, nine Afghan fighters wounded by a U.S. bomb dropped by mistake on their position were returned to Afghanistan yesterday. The fighters had been treated for shrapnel wounds on U.S. ships nearby.

The returning Afghans were greeted by the newly installed governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sharzai, and Marine Corps Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the Marines in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, made a surprise visit to Kandahar yesterday to visit his troops.

"We are in the infancy of expeditionary operations. Truly, our biggest operations in the 21st century are going to be expeditionary operations from the sea," Gen. Jones said during a four-hour visit.

"It's kind of reassuring to see the top dog come down, give you the thumbs up and say everything is OK," said Lance Cpl. Jim Cox.

A group of FBI agents arrived at the Kandahar airport earlier this week to question the 15 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters being held at the Marine base there.

Meanwhile, Ayman al Zawahiri, considered the most important al Qaeda terrorist leader after bin Laden, stated in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Majallah that his forces are set to conduct suicide terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.

A bomb was detonated at a market in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif yesterday, wounding 100 persons in what local officials said was a terrorist grenade attack.

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