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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Nabs 2 Top Al Qaeda Leaders

Afghanistan: Officials believe phones, laptops could yield information. Special envoy defends continued airstrikes despite civilian deaths.

January 09, 2002|JOHN HENDREN and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Two senior Al Qaeda leaders laden with training documents and laptops have been caught fleeing heavy bombing in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Tuesday, and Washington's new special envoy to Afghanistan acknowledged that errant airstrikes in the country have cost "innocent lives."

A team of U.S. soldiers captured 14 suspected Al Qaeda fighters at the Zhawar Kili al Badr cave and bunker complex near Khowst without a firefight late Monday, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The two leaders, who were not identified, were singled out for U.S. detention and brought to a makeshift prison in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar for interrogation. The 12 others were turned over to Afghan authorities.

Pentagon officials say they believe that the arrests could yield valuable information on the Al Qaeda terror network and its targets. Forensic scientists are searching the computers, mobile phones and training documents found Monday for information, with a keen eye on the telephone numbers stored in the phones' memory and messages and documents stored on the computers, a senior defense official said.

The capture highlighted progress in a bombing campaign that has failed to yield Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar--and has led some Afghan leaders to urge a halt of airstrikes amid reports of civilian deaths. As Myers outlined the potential intelligence gains from Washington, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad used his first news conference since arriving in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to offer a vigorous defense of the strikes.

The United States erred in abandoning Afghanistan after rebels expelled the occupying Soviet army in 1989, Khalilzad said Tuesday, and Washington is committed to rehabilitating Afghanistan when the war ends. But continued airstrikes are needed to avert "a return of chaos and Bin Laden Jr. in the future," he said.

"We regret the loss of innocent lives, but we have to weigh the risks of ending the war prematurely and continuing the operation. And I have no doubt, on balance, that we will continue the operation until we achieve our goal," the Afghanistan-born Khalilzad said. "War is not a perfect business. Mistakes are made."

Asked about errors made by the U.S. military, Khalilzad named only the Dec. 5 incident in which an errant bomb injured Hamid Karzai, now prime minister in Afghanistan's interim government, and killed three U.S. Green Berets.

The Afghan government will not formally ask the United States to halt its bombing campaign, Karzai said Tuesday in an interview with the BBC.

U.S. forces are now cleaning up the wreckage of a bombing campaign in the mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where Bin Laden reportedly had taken refuge. But to the south, U.S. bombers have repeatedly attacked what Myers called a "huge" cave complex in Paktia province in recent days after intelligence reports found that Al Qaeda fighters had gathered there.

Defense officials contend that the region, where a Green Beret was killed Friday, remains perilous. As Green Berets on the ground found such targets as tanks and munitions, an F-14 Tomcat and an F/A-18 Hornet continued to rain bombs on bunkers and buildings in the Zhawar Kili complex.

The bombing campaign and the work of 3,500 to 4,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and hundreds more elsewhere in the region continue to produce some high-profile captures. A senior defense official confirmed that intelligence reports suggest that recent bombing killed Abu Hafs, also known as Mahfouz Ould al Walid, and Abu Jafar al Jaziri. Hafs reportedly was an Al Qaeda operative, and Jaziri was a logistics coordinator for the terrorist group. Other reports suggested that Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who ran some of Bin Laden's training camps, was captured.

Senior Taliban officials also reportedly surrendered, including former Defense Minister Mullah Obaidulla, former Mines and Industry Minister Mullah Saadudin Sayed and former Justice Minister Mullah Nooruddin Turabi.

Intelligence and defense officials say intelligence yielded from the interrogations in Afghanistan by U.S. and allied troops has led to the arrests of Al Qaeda cell members in Europe and elsewhere and has possibly thwarted terror attacks.

Yet the two most-sought-after figures, Bin Laden and Omar, have eluded capture. Both are probably still in Afghanistan, but Kabul has no information on where they might be hiding, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said Tuesday.

Some intelligence reports, however, suggest that the two have escaped to Pakistan. The United States has an agreement that would allow troops to follow Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives into Pakistan, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is directing the war in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press. But a senior Pentagon official said U.S. special operations troops are working only in cooperation with Pakistani soldiers.

"We're not going in there alone," the official said.

The fragile security situation throughout Afghanistan has made it increasingly likely that Karzai will ask the international community to provide more troops to patrol cities beyond Kabul if the need arises. In Kandahar, a wounded Al Qaeda fighter holed up for weeks in a hospital blew himself up as he tried to escape, hospital guards said. The man was identified as Abu Bakhar of Sudan.

The number of detainees in U.S. control has risen to 364, with 302 in Kandahar, 38 at Bagram air base north of Kabul, 16 in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and eight on the amphibious assault ship Bataan.

*

Hendren reported from Washington and Rubin from Kabul.

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