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Pentagon says WMDs not likely in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Despite considerable documentary evidence of al Qaeda's interest in obtaining nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, U.S. military officials reiterated Thursday they do not believe such weapons are in Afghanistan.

A U.S. Central Command spokesman said Wednesday two canisters found near Kabul and thought to contain deadly chemicals were empty, according to Reuters.

Even so, officials said, suspicious canisters, even empty ones, would be brought to the United States for testing.

Defense Department officials have photographs of two such sets of suspicious canisters that reportedly show detailed markings.

A British organization involved in humanitarian work found one set of canisters -- about the size of a Thermos bottle with a screw top -- earlier this month near Kabul.

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U.S. intelligence analysts studying the markings on the canisters said they resemble previous hoaxes in which al Qaeda operatives bought phony uranium material on the black market.

In recent weeks, another set of small canisters was found near Kandahar marked with Cyrillic characters and a skull and crossbones -- the latter symbols that could indicate, or pretend to indicate, chemical or biological material.

"Externally, they appear to be weapons of mass destruction," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday, referring to the marked canisters. "But until we get into them, look at them, analyze it, find out what it was, we're not going to know."

Rumsfeld stressed that U.S. authorities do not have any "hard evidence" that al Qaeda or Taliban forces possess weapons of mass destruction.

But, the defense secretary said, intensive U.S.-led searches of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban locations in Afghanistan have yielded "a number of things that show an appetite for weapons of mass destruction."

Rumsfeld pointed to the discovery of "diagrams, materials, reports that things were asked for [and] discussed" as proof that Osama bin Laden wished to obtain and use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, or all three.

U.S. forces have searched more than 40 of the 50-plus sites in Afghanistan considered possible depots or research facilities for weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld said.

As of Thursday, U.S. Special Forces troops were spread throughout southeastern Afghanistan, a former stronghold of al Qaeda and Taliban forces, according to several military sources.

The sensitive operation included searches of several cave complexes southeast of Kandahar, sources said.




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