- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan British forces will give most al Qaeda or Taliban fighters they capture to Afghanistan's interim government not the United States after granting them special status denied to U.S.-held captives, British military officials said yesterday.

Some exceptions could be made, however, particularly if Osama bin Laden or one of his top lieutenants falls into British hands, said the officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity at Bagram air base, north of the capital, Kabul.

The fate of enemy fighters captured during joint U.S.-British operations would be left up to the highest person on the chain of command, the officials said.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said how the British decide to treat captured fighters is "up to the British government."

"The British are great partners in the war against terror, and we're not going to tell them exactly what to do. We're happy with their contribution," Maj. Hilferty said.

U.S., British and Afghan soldiers have been scouring the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan in search of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They often find weapons caches, documents and other materials left behind when enemy forces fled the area.

British combat troops, who only recently began arriving, have yet to capture any enemy troops or be confronted with classifying al Qaeda detainees. British troop strength at Bagram is expected to reach 1,700 by month's end.

In London, a spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defense confirmed the policy.

"Our forces in Afghanistan are not structured to handle large numbers of detainees," the spokesman said on the condition of anonymity.

At issue is the U.S. refusal to grant formal prisoner-of-war status to captives it is holding from Afghanistan, including the Taliban fighters and members of al Qaeda, the network of chief September 11 terror suspect bin Laden.

The United States regards the captives as "unlawful combatants," and has refused to accede to demands from other governments and international rights organizations to accord them POW status, meaning their captivity would be governed by international rules.

"We believe it is not clear whether they are legal or illegal combatants, whereas the U.S. has taken the view that they are illegal combatants," said one British official at Bagram.

He said legal combatants were defined roughly as soldiers who belong to a recognized state military and carry their arms openly.

"Our perception is that they are fighting on behalf of the Taliban regime and therefore they should be repatriated into the custody of the current Afghan regime" of Hamid Karzai, the official said.

In general, detainees captured by the British will be given prisoner of war status, the officials said.

The United States is holding about 300 terrorist suspects, all flown in from Afghanistan, at its Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a similar number in Afghanistan, most of them in the southern city of Kandahar and a smaller number at Bagram air base, north of the capital.

In a related development, Turkey officially agreed yesterday to take command of the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

The Turkish government said it would take command of the 4,500-member, 18-nation force from Britain for six months, but gave no date.

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