- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

American troops took seven more prisoners in Afghanistan as they pressed ahead in the hunt for al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban leaders, defense officials said yesterday.

The prisoners were caught during one of several ongoing operations, an official said. He declined to give details, saying the efforts are continuing.

U.S.-led forces have been searching caves and tunnels for members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network and for leaders of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime, as well as for documents and other materials that could provide information as to their whereabouts or plans.

It was not immediately clear whether the seven captured Monday belonged to al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Meanwhile, troops were planning to search other Afghan locations where intelligence sources say al Qaeda terrorists have hidden complexes, defense sources said on the condition of anonymity.

Marines found one new hiding place yesterday outside the Kandahar airport, which they have been using for more than a month.

For a week and a half, warplanes have been bombing an extensive collection of buildings and caves in the eastern part of the country, near the village of Zawar. Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Monday they'll "probably look for another complex."

The military already knows several areas it wants to target, a defense official said yesterday on the condition of anonymity. The Pentagon has intelligence indicating there may be Taliban or al Qaeda or their weapons hidden in a handful of places, which he declined to name.

Airstrikes have flattened 60 buildings and sealed about 50 caves in the Zawar Kili area near the Pakistani border, Adm. Stufflebeem said Monday. U.S. warplanes have struck the former al Qaeda base almost daily for the last week.

"We're coming to a conclusion in this particular complex, and we'll probably look for another complex," Adm. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference.

As he spoke, Marines near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar were working on a new discovery only 500 yards from their airport base.

Marine Capt. Dan Greenwood said that patrols spotted seven men who appeared to be armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers heading toward an abandoned mud-wall house outside the base Monday evening, Afghan time.

They sent out a patrol yesterday morning. The men were not found, but a cache of ammunition was. U.S. demolitions experts blew up a nearby bunker made of rock.

Officials said that although the find was extremely small, particularly compared to the Zawar complex, it illustrates the continuing danger of U.S. work in Afghanistan.

The same area was used by gunmen Thursday to carry out an attack while a C-17 transport plane took off with the first batch of 20 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, headed for a high-security jail at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Adm. Stufflebeem said that by the time Marines responded Thursday, the gunman were gone. An official said yesterday it's now believed they slipped into the tunnels after firing.

The base at the Kandahar airport is the main detention center for al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. Officials said 483 were in U.S. custody 432 in Afghanistan, the 50 in Cuba and American John Walker on the amphibious attack ship USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

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