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Top Taliban officials may have fled Afghanistan, official says

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Seven top Taliban government officials -- who surrendered in Kandahar in the last 48 hours -- have been released by local authorities and may have left the country, interim Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said Wednesday.

The officials surrendered to Gul Agha Sherzai, who is in charge of the Kandahar region. Government officials are trying to determine who allowed the seven to return to their home villages and why, Samad said. U.S. officials said they want to question the former Taliban leaders.

The acknowledgement by the interim government that the Taliban officials may have fled comes as the United States prepares to transfer several hundred al Qaeda and Taliban detainees from Afghanistan to a U.S. military base in Cuba. The move could begin Wednesday night.

At the Pentagon, officials said that because the prisoners are so dangerous, they may be given the drug Valium as a sedative for the trip.

Among the seven former Taliban officials who surrendered were three former senior government ministers and the security chief for the city of Herat, in western Afghanistan.

The former government ministers -- Obaidullah Akhund, former defense minister; Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, former justice minister, who was in charge of enforcing the Taliban's rigid religious laws; and Mullah Saadudin, minister of mines and industry -- were not charged with any crimes, the local Kandahar officials said.

Although U.S. forces expressed interest in the seven, officers at Kandahar said Tuesday they accepted the Afghan decision to let them go, and have given no indication they are pursuing them, sources said. However, Pentagon officials said the United States still wants to question them.

"Obviously, individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect that they would be turned over, absolutely," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.

The Afghans have promised to turn over Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden, if they surrender or are captured, U.S. officials have said.

The mood was tense Wednesday at the Kandahar air field where U.S. forces are waiting to be told when flights carrying al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners will leave for the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The detainees were to travel in groups of 15 to 20, and the trip won't be nonstop, military sources said Wednesday, because the air field at Kandahar where the detainees are being kept cannot handle a big Air Force transport.

Pentagon officials said U.S. Air Force crews who will provide security for the flights have received special training at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. As part of the tight security, dogs may accompany the prisoners.

"Obviously, any time you have detainees who will sacrifice their life to kill you or what you stand for, I mean, that's the most dangerous type of individual you can have in your control," Myers said Tuesday.

The plane selected for the main part of the mission is the aging C-141, an aircraft with intercontinental range. However, it is not able to land at Kandahar because the field is too rough.

Instead, the smaller C-17, with its short landing and take-off abilities, will make the first hop out of Afghanistan. The four-engine jet can land on a runway only 3,000 feet long and 90 feet wide, according to the Department of Defense.

The C-17 is expected to land in another country, where the detainees are to be transferred to specially outfitted C-141s for the final leg to Guantanamo. Military officials will not disclose the route of the flight as a precaution.

The U.S. Central Command said Wednesday there are 368 detainees.

Officials said measures are being taken to ensure the prisoners are kept under control during the flights, including using secure enclosures on the planes to confine them.

Meanwhile, military reconnaissance missions have uncovered a far more extensive underground network of caves and tunnels at a onetime training camp used by forces loyal to the ousted Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Based on the discovery, the United States carried out bombing raids Wednesday around the Zawar Kili training camp in eastern Afghanistan.

Sources tell CNN the underground maze of passageways could cover 30-40 acres, and that the camp above ground now appears to have covered a four-mile area in the rugged mountainous region.

Ground forces inspecting the area in recent days have discovered massive amounts of weapons and ammo left behind by the fleeing fighters, along with military machinery.

In Kabul, Afghan government officials ordered people with guns Wednesday to get off the streets or face arrest by the new international security force.

Under the Bonn agreement, which set up the force, "The participants in the U.N. talks on Afghanistan pledge to withdraw all military units from Kabul and other urban centers or other areas in which the U.N.-mandated force is deployed."

Afghan officials said troops were being told to get off the streets and return to barracks. Anyone left on the streets with a gun would face arrest by the new security force, they said.

-- CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, Correspondents Bill Hemmer and Jeff Levine, and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this story.




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