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Bill Hemmer: U.S. questioning top detainees

CNN's Bill Hemmer
CNN's Bill Hemmer  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. Marines are holding dozens of suspected Taliban fighters at a base at Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan. Officials said they hope several high-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban members in U.S. custody will yield information on the whereabouts of the groups' top leaders.

CNN Correspondent Bill Hemmer filed the following report:

HEMMER: Let's talk first about Abdul Salam Zaeef. It was late Saturday when U.S. authorities had the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan returned from Islamabad, Pakistan. Right now, Zaeef is being held on board the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

Eight other detainees are also being held there, including 20-year-old American John Walker. It was Zaeef who was the face and the voice for the Taliban, a rather contentious figure at points during many press briefings that featured the Taliban ambassador during the early days of this conflict.

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We saw him many times, and certainly what U.S. authorities would like to get from Zaeef is more information -- not just on the Taliban here in Afghanistan -- but certainly the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammed Omar, who may have avoided capture in Helmand province.

In addition to [Zaeef is] Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, the man who is accused of running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. The White House indicated that al-Libi was on their top 12 target list for suspected al Qaeda leaders. Pakistanis also apprehended al-Libi, we are being told. He's being held at the detention facility in Kandahar.

On Saturday night, 25 more detainees were brought in to the facility. All 25 are suspected al Qaeda members who were fleeing the Tora Bora [region] in eastern Afghanistan for refuge in Pakistan. The total number of detainees at the facility is 300. The Marines say they'd like to push that number eventually to 500. For the past 10 days we have seen numerous people coming to the camp, transferred here from Pakistan, where they were first detained, questioned and processed.

In accordance with the Geneva Convention, no correspondents are allowed to go inside the detainee facility. The convention prohibits public display of prisoners or detainees.

But we have gotten reports about the detainees inside. They sleep on the ground with a blanket. They're given food every day. There's a medical clinic set up inside.

In fact, one source told me that a few days ago, they performed brain surgery on one of the detainees. Numerous doctors are here, and the Red Cross is on hand to make sure that all rules are complied with.

Late Saturday night, we noticed significant movement on the tarmac at Kandahar airport. Marines boarded as many as a dozen U.S. Sea Knight, Super Stallion and Cobra helicopters and took off for an undisclosed location somewhere in southern Afghanistan.

The Marines also indicate that they're looking for intelligence on al Qaeda and the Taliban. You might recall back on New Year's Eve that a group of about 200 Marines left in the middle of the night, forming a long convoy bound for Helmand province. They searched a compound there and returned with what they said was a "modest" amount of intelligence.

As one Marine pointed out, "Missions here are under way all the time 24 hours a day."




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