From combined dispatches
The United States and Afghanistan’s interim administration scrambled to avert their first major rift yesterday as Washington disagreed with Kabul’s decision to free former Taliban officials who surrendered to the Afghan authorities.
In Kandahar, the home turf of the ousted Taliban regime, Afghan officials said yesterday seven high-ranking Taliban officials including the ex-justice minister surrendered to Afghan commanders but were set free.
They were released despite U.S. demands that they be handed over.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad told reporters the government was determining whether the Taliban officials were “war criminals.”
Nooruddin Turabi, the Taliban’s one-eyed, one-legged justice minister drew up the militia’s repressive version of Islamic law including restrictions on women and created the religious police to enforce it.
The State Department said earlier that “at this point” the status of the former officials is “not clear,” but insisted that any high-level members of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network should be not be freed.
“We have said before that we believe that senior Taliban officials should be taken into custody,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington. “We would expect that to be the case with these individuals. And I’m sure we’ll be looking into this matter further.”
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier that U.S. officials wanted top Taliban leaders turned over.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to bolster the new government’s authority in the capital, interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai ordered armed men to leave Kabul’s streets and return to their barracks within three days or be jailed, Interior Minister Younus Qanooni said yesterday.
The order allows only uniformed police on Kabul’s streets, where fighters from various factions bristling with rocket launchers and automatic weapons have moved freely since the Nov. 13 departure of the Taliban. International peacekeepers in the city are also armed.
Jalal Khan, a close associate of Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha, told the Associated Press that the surrendering Taliban leaders had met officials in the southern city and received general amnesty after recognizing Mr. Karzai’s interim administration.
They have been allowed to go back to their homes and live with their families, Mr. Khan said.
“Those men who have surrendered are our brothers and we have allowed them to live in a peaceful manner. They will not be handed over to America,” Mr. Khan said. “However, they will not participate in politics.”
Mr. Khan initially said the ex-regime’s defense minister had been arrested. But Yousaf Pashtoon, an aide to the Kandahar governor, said late yesterday that the man was actually a former Taliban front-line commander with the same name Mullah Ubaidullah, also spelled Obeidullah.
Others who were reported to have surrendered were Abdul Haq, former security chief of Herat province, an ancient cultural crossroads where the Taliban’s crude, extreme Islamic rule was never well accepted; the minister of mines, Mullah Saadudin; and senior officials Raees Abdul Wahid, Abdul Salam Rakti and Mohammed Sadiq.
Gen. Myers said Tuesday at the Pentagon that U.S. officials were looking into reports of the surrender. “Obviously, individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect them to be turned over,” he said.
In Kandahar, Mr. Khan said the Taliban officials were let go on condition they swear to obey the interim government and recognize its sovereignty, which they did, he said.
“From the very start, we have said when they surrender, and give up their guns and their cars, they will be given amnesty,” Mr. Khan said.
Intelligence Ministry officials in Kabul declined to comment yesterday on the reported surrender and amnesties.
Also yesterday, the British military spokesman in Afghanistan, Maj. Guy Richardson, said the bomb-damaged main runway of Kabul’s airport could be cleared of mines and reopened by early next week to give a boost to relief and military efforts.
Negotiations on the surrender of ex-Taliban figures have recently frustrated the U.S.-led coalition, especially the apparent escape last week of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar while he had reportedly been surrounded in the mountainous Baghran district by anti-Taliban fighters.
Marine Lt. Col. James Jarvis, in a daily briefing to reporters at the Kandahar airport, where more than 300 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners are being detained, voiced no objection to the release of the former Taliban officials.
“We’re not in the business of determining who should and should not be in custody right now,” Col. Jarvis said.
In Washington, Gen. Myers said Tuesday that U.S. troops wrapping up operations at the bombed-out Tora Bora complex near the border with Pakistan had seized two senior al Qaeda members, their computers and cell phones.
American operations have shifted from Tora Bora to the Zawar Kili area around Khowst in Paktia province, site of a former al Qaeda training camp and an assembly area for possible attempts by vanquished fighters to flee into Pakistan. U.S. Special Forces teams are on the ground in the area, where a Green Beret soldier was killed in a reported ambush Friday.
The U.S. military has been targeting pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda resistance as commanders shift their focus from an all-out search for bin Laden, blamed for the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.