Sources: Marines could search Tora Bora
189 suspected al Qaeda arrested by Pakistan; 3 more prisoners in U.S. custody
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Two U.S. military sources confirmed Thursday that up to 500 Marines could be ready as soon as this weekend to begin searching caves in Tora Bora for al Qaeda members.
The sources emphasized that Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, has not given final approval to the mission. But the Marines are available to deploy more quickly than Army troops, so Franks could well decide to send them on short notice.
There are 1,600 Marines in the region. Some, already at Camp Rhino or Kandahar airport, could be sent or the Marines could be supplemented by Army forces.
One source said time is essential. The military wants to begin and finish the search quickly before the situation on the ground changes too much or there are complications caused by the winter weather, like a large snowfall.
The Marines do have some mountain warfare training. They would conduct the mission with ordnance disposal teams to detonate mines and booby traps.
In Pakistan, authorities in Parachinar, a remote area near the Afghan border, said Thursday they had arrested 189 people in the last 10 to 12 days believed to be al Qaeda fighters.
Security is heavy in the White Mountains in the Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan as U.S. and anti-Taliban forces continue searching for al Qaeda or Taliban fighters fleeing the area, sometimes crossing over into Pakistan.
CNN reported that there are major roadblocks and heavy deployment of Pakistani forces along the Afghan frontier.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday that the Pakistani army had deployed seven battalions in the area to round up al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
On Thursday, Pentagon officials said three new detainees were flown out to the assault ship USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea, joining five others, including U.S. citizen and Taliban member John Walker.
That brings to 23 the number of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the custody of U.S. forces, including 15 who are being held near Kandahar.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters that "we think they are of enough interest that we want to hang on to them."
She said the three new detainees came from Mazar-e Sharif, where a prisoner revolt in November resulted in the death of a CIA officer and Taliban prisoners and Northern Alliance fighters.
No bombing for second day
In an update on military action, Clarke said U.S. aircraft flew some 141 missions over Afghanistan on Wednesday, but for a second consecutive day dropped no bombs.
On the ground, anti-Taliban and U.S. forces continued searching caves in the Tora Bora region for leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"Our objective is to get very senior al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and work these tunnels to see who we might find," Clarke said.
She did not comment directly on reports that most senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders remain at large.
Asked whether more U.S. troops could be added to the force working the caves, Pentagon spokesman Dick McGraw refused comment but did say, "I couldn't tell you even if I knew."
On Wednesday, 13 people -- including seven al Qaeda prisoners -- were killed when prisoners took over a bus near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border Wednesday, according to local commanders in Pakistan.
Twenty prisoners were apprehended, but 21 others got away and are being sought by Pakistani authorities.
Wounded anti-Taliban fighters return to Afghanistan
Nine anti-Taliban fighters who were wounded in a December 5 friendly fire incident and treated by the U.S. military returned to Afghanistan on Thursday.
They arrived at Kandahar airport aboard a U.S. airplane. They were met by Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Kandahar province, who was escorted onto the base. He and Brig. Gen. James Mattis welcomed the fighters back to Afghanistan.
It was described as a traditional greeting. Sherzai kissed the fighters on their cheeks. They got in vehicles and left the base.
The fighters were treated aboard U.S. ships in the Arabian Sea.
Three U.S. Green Berets and six Afghan opposition fighters were killed in the incident when a B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb near their location. The U.S. troops had requested the airstrike in an attempt to dislodge Taliban fighters dug in around Kandahar. The incident is under investigation by the Pentagon.
U.S. officials said 13 U.S. troops and 18 Afghan fighters were wounded.
-- CNN Correspondent Kamal Hyder and Producer Brad Wright contributed to this report.
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