Karzai dismisses circumstances of Taliban release
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The leader of Afghanistan's interim government Thursday dismissed the circumstances surrounding a decision not to hold what had been described as seven top Taliban government officials who surrendered in Kandahar this week.
In an interview with CNN, Hamid Karzai, chairman of the interim government, said four or five of the Taliban officials were not on a list of people the United States wanted detained and another was a case of mistaken identity. In any case, Karzai said, all had agreed to surrender weapons on the condition they not be arrested.
Earlier in the week, however, the Pentagon had expressed interest in talking with the men.
"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.
According to local Kandahar officials, the most notable among the seven were 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. They said none of the men was charged with crimes.
The Taliban officials surrendered to Gul Agha Sherzai, who is in charge of the Kandahar region. Government officials were trying to determine who allowed the seven to return to their home villages and why, said interim Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad.
Though U.S. forces expressed interest in the men, officers in Kandahar said Tuesday they accepted the Afghan decision to let them go, and have given no indication they are pursuing them, sources said.
The Afghan interim leader promised cooperation despite the missed opportunity. "Those that the United States wants will be turned over to the United States. We have made that pledge and we will go with it," Karzai said. "The good and bad will be differentiated and separated." Tops on America's most-wanted list are suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Even as U.S. officials admit their trails have grown cold, the Afghan leader said the hunt goes on "very strongly."
"We had information about last week that Mullah Omar was somewhere in western Afghanistan ... in a mountainous area. We sent people to look for him," Karzai said. "We could not find him, but we will keep looking for both these persons and they will be arrested. It's just a question of time."
Meanwhile at the Kandahar airport, U.S. forces were 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 total number of detainees being kept at the air field swelled to 351 with the addition of 45 on Wednesday night.
The detainees were to travel in groups of 15 to 20. The trip will not be nonstop, military sources said, because the air field at Kandahar where the detainees are being kept cannot handle a big Air Force transport.
As part of precautionary measures, military officials will not disclose the route the flight will take.
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. Security dogs trained in Kandahar may also make the trip to Cuba.
U.S. officials also are considering sedating the prisoners during the flight.
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