BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Four Arab escapees believed to be members of Al Qaeda eluded a U.S. military dragnet for a second day Tuesday as Islamic extremists celebrated the breakout from a detention center here as proof of American weakness.
U.S. and allied Afghan troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships set up checkpoints and searched villages surrounding the Bagram air base, about 25 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The base houses the detention center, where several hundred suspected militants are held, and serves as the headquarters for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Residents of several villages and Afghan officials said soldiers were looking in fields, gardens and the few tree-covered areas of the Shomali plain.
Soldiers did not search houses in the area, said Qabir Ahmad, district commissioner for the Afghan government in Bagram, where the Al Qaeda terrorist network and its Taliban militia allies have few supporters.
The suspects were reported missing from the heavily guarded facility Monday morning, the military said. Posters distributed by American troops identify the prisoners as Abdullah Hashimi of Syria, Mahmoud Ahmad Mohammed of Kuwait, Mahmoud Fathami of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Hassan of Libya.
Their mug shots show men with closely cropped hair and bushy beards, apparently wearing the orange jumpsuits issued to prisoners at Bagram.
Lt. Cindy Moore, a U.S. military spokeswoman, said the Criminal Investigation Division was trying to determine how four dangerous prisoners in bright uniforms could disappear from the most heavily guarded military base in Afghanistan.
Moore refused to say whether searchers were following any specific leads in the manhunt.
"Certainly, there's an aggressive search ongoing," she said, which has focused on Bagram airfield and its vicinity.
The military has not disclosed whether anyone responsible for security at Bagram has been fired or replaced after the first breakout at the prison.
Afghans who live nearby questioned the military's statement that the prisoners were reported missing at 5 a.m. Monday. Local people who work at the base said they had seen signs of trouble hours earlier, when the facility was closed to all but a few civilians at midnight.
More than 1,000 Afghans work at the base over a 24-hour period, engaged in such tasks as interpreting, building and cleaning.
Imran Mujahid, a pharmacist, said the base was closed to Afghan civilians except a few interpreters when workers showed up at the front gates at midnight, five hours before the military says the prisoners were reported missing.
Mujahid and other residents said U.S. soldiers began showing posters bearing the escaped prisoners' names and faces about 7 a.m. Monday. He questioned whether posters could be printed and distributed only two hours after a prison break.
Several current and former workers at the base said the Al Qaeda suspects would have needed help from someone inside the facility to evade the extraordinarily tight security.
"As far as I know, a mosquito cannot get out of the Bagram air base," Mujahid said. "Then how could these people get out and escape?"
Mujahid said that he had been working at the base for 18 months washing prisoners' clothes and that the daily security routine was extremely strict.
To get onto the base, he said, he has to wait for a soldier to wave him forward to a weapons search area. Once cleared for entry, another guard checks his identity card against a computer database. The guard then performs a cross-check with a scan of Mujahid's eyes.
A U.S. soldier then escorts Mujahid and other Afghans to their workplaces, he said.
The security checks, including the eye scan, are repeated when workers leave the base at the end of each shift, Mujahid added.
The four-man escape has embarrassed U.S. forces amid an escalating war with Taliban fighters and their allies in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Even Afghan supporters questioned the military's competence after the security breach.
"Overall, Americans are very strong and powerful, but they were very weak and disorganized when the Al Qaeda members escaped from jail," said Shasulhaq, a leader in the village of Gul Qalae, near the Bagram base.
"We are all worried about these four escaping. We hope nothing happens, like a bomb exploding," added Shasulhaq, who goes by one name.
The breakout was another blow to the U.S. military's image. Last week, Taliban fighters killed three Navy SEAL commandos in the mountains of the eastern province of Kunar. They also shot down a transport helicopter, killing 16 special operations troops sent to rescue the commandos.
The Taliban, which has stepped up its insurgency in recent months, considers the Bagram incident and the Kunar battle major victories against U.S. forces, said Mullah Latif Hakimi, who claimed to speak for the militia.
He referred to the four detainees as mujahedin, or holy warriors, and said their escape showed that opponents of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan were growing stronger.
"While the Americans are busy having sex and drinking, the mujahedin have improved and become stronger than them," Hakimi said by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.