Al-Qaeda prisoners shipped out amid attacks on US troops
Friday January 11, 7:09 PM AFP
Afghan troops were leaving Kabul British peacekeepers said, as US troops protecting the first transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to Cuba fought a shootout with gunmen who infiltrated their base.
US troops came under small arms fire shortly after a C-17 transport plane carrying about 20 Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners took off from a US base at Kandahar airport in the south of Afghanistan for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The plane left Kandahar undamaged late Thursday, US officers told CNN, as it was due to arrive in Cuba on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance troops who have occupied the Afghan capital since taking it from the ousted Taliban regime two months ago were leaving the city under the orders of the country's new power-sharing interim government.
The withdrawl was welcomed by the commanders of a British-led international security force which has begun to patrol the city and provide security for the government, which has a six-month mandate to bring peace back to the country.
"What the interim administration has said is those people who are from outside Kabul should return from whence they came," said Major Guy Richardson, the British spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"This from HQ-ISAF perspective is good because they (the interim administration) are taking it a stage further than what is specified in the MTA (military technical agreement)."
At Bala-e-hisar Fort southeast of the capital, Jan Mohammad, 38, a deputy to commander Haji Mohammad Almas, told AFP that troops were withdrawing from the centre of Kabul.
"Yes, it's the last day and it will be finished," he said.
Two Kabul barracks visited by AFP journalists were empty and Northern Alliance Brigadier Mohamad Ghani said most of his troops were withdrawing to Parwan Province northwest of Kabul, and to Logar to the south.
The withdrawal of the Northern Alliance forces, whose leaders have vowed to support the peace agreement, is seen as a key move to head off the risk that factional fighting could break out and return Afghanistan to all out war.
The ISAF force and Afghan police will patrol the capital jointly.
ISAF is already more than 1,000 strong and its numbers are expected to rise to 5,000 by the end of the month, British officers say. The first of what is expected to be an 800-strong German contigent arrived on Friday.
British and French troops have already begun patrols, and in all 17-nations -- all European apart from New Zealand -- are expected to take part.
US forces in Afghanistan are hunting down remaining pockets of Taliban and al-Qaeda support, after a fierce air and ground campaign drove the hardliners from major cities and destroyed many of their mountain redoubts.
Washington blames al-Qaeda's Saudi-born leader, Osama bin Laden, for the September 11 attacls on US cities and has vowed to hunt him down with his remaining supporters, both Afghan Taliban and foreign Islam radicals.
The transfer of prisoners to Cuba is the latest stage in a campaign that has sent US special forces, bombers and spotter planes scouring Afghan highlands for signs of the elusive bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Just as the jet transporter took off with its human cargo, unidentified gunmen penetrated the heavily guarded airbase on foot under cover of darkness and attacked US troops, Marine Lieutenant James Jarvis told CNN from the base.
US Marines responded with machine gun and rifle fire.
Marines at the base and Afghan forces launched a pursuit of the assailants and "are in the process of dealing with that threat," said Navy Commander Frank Merriman, a spokesman at the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
"At no time was the aircraft in danger, nor did it perform any evasive maneuvers," Merriman said, referring to the military transport plane.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Bill Costello, a spokesman for the task force in charge of the transfer, could not give an exact time of arrival in Cuba of the plane carrying the captives, saying only: "They'll be here when they're here."
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, US forces have been struggling to find bin Laden, who is widely rumoured to have Afghanistan, and their continued air strikes have begun to worry states which support "their war on terrorism".
The speaker of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) Gennady Seleznyov said, on a visit to Dushanbe on Friday, that Russia "wishes peace to return as soon as possible to Afghanistan and is against the current bombing going on indefinitely."
Another key member of the US anti-terror coalition, Pakistan, has asked the United States to scale back its use of two of the four Pakistani bases being used by US forces, the Washington Post reported.
Pakistan is concerned it might need full use of the bases itself amid rsing tensions on its border with India, as the two regional nuclear-armed rivals square up against each other over Kashmir and cross-border militant activity.
US planners are also looking at other countries thought to be harbouring al-Qaeda cells, wittingly or unwittingly, amid reports that US military action could spread beyond Afghanistan.
On Thursday President George W. Bush warned Iran, which has hitherto supported anti-Taliban action, not to consider helping militants escape Afghanistan.
In the Philippines, US military advisors are training government troops to take on Muslim rebels believed to have links with bin Laden's group.
On Friday Filipino military spokesman Brigadier General Edilberto Adan said that as the training programme moved to exercises in the country's rebellious south some 100 US personnel could find themselves in the firing line.
"There will be instances, since they (the Americans) will be in the areas of operations, where they will accompany our companies," Adan said.
"It could happen that there could be some accidents or they could be engaged by some terrorists."
Bush has said he has offered US forces to help Manila's campaign directly, but so far the government has preferred to use its own troops.
In Singapore a suspected Islamic group with al-Qaeda links had planned to target US personnel and naval vessels before police struck and arrested key members of the gang, the city-state's home affairs ministry said Friday.
And both US and Indonesian officials believe hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters trained last year at a camp in central Indonesia, and fear sleeper cells could soon become operational there, the Washington Post reported.
A senior Indonesian intelligence official told the paper that the camp was no longer operational, but warned that the fighters could have gone to ground almost anywhere in the huge nation of 17,000 islands
Mahathir says about 50 Malaysians linked to al Qaeda
Friday January 11, 5:40 PM
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia said on Friday some 50 locals had links with the al Qaeda group accused of September's attacks on the United States, adding that recently arrested suspects had admitted to being trained in Afghanistan.
Malaysian police have detained nearly 40 people since August in a crackdown on alleged Islamic militancy, and have been investigating possible connections with the al Qaeda network of suspected September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
"What we know is these people admitted they were trained in Afghanistan by the Taliban and by the group of Osama bin Laden," Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on Friday.
"As far as we know, their intentions are very bad, namely to create trouble and to try and overthrow the government by terrorist means," he added.
Friday's New Straits Times newspaper published an interview with Mahathir conducted by Japanese magazine Chuokoron, in which the premier answered a direct question about whether his country's nationals were linked to al Qaeda.
"Yes, about 50. We have tracked down quite a number of them," he was quoted as telling the monthly magazine.
Malaysia first arrested 10 men in August, accusing them of belonging to Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), an Afghan-trained Islamic militant group linked to unsolved bombings, robberies and the murder of a local state assemblyman.
The group was intent on building a purist Islamic state in Malaysia and also in neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines, police said.
Last week, when Malaysia announced 13 more arrests, Singapore said it too had detained up to 15 members of a group called the Jemaah Islamiah.
Mahathir said the workings of KMM members linked to al Qaeda had not been clearly established.
"Whether they have become a cell in Malaysia or not, or whether they have been working independently, we don't know."
He said the detainees, held under the Internal Security Act allowing detention without trial, will be charged with relevant crimes if proper evidence could be raised.
"Where they are involved in definite crimes like the murder of the state assemblyman, if we can find enough proof, we will try them," he said.
One of the men most recently arrested met two of the September 11 plane hijackers less than a year beforehand, a source close to the investigation told Reuters.
The Malaysian, one of 13 suspects arrested between December 9 and January 3, met Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in Malaysia, the source said this week.
The United States has identified al-Midhar and al-Hazmi as being among hijackers who flew American Airlines flight 77 into the Pentagon in Washington.
Malaysian police have also said Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman charged in the United States with conspiring with al Qaeda to murder thousands of people in connection with the September 11 attacks, visited the country twice in late 2000.
Friday January 11, 12:59 PM AFP
The 5,000-strong international security force in Afghanistan should be fully deployed by mid-February, Britain's Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament.
He added that 16 nations would deploy troops alongside British forces as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). "This is a coalition of the willing," said Hoon Thursday.
He said that as leader of the force, Britain was contributing up to 1,800 troops, in addition to 300 personnel currently in Kabul.
"The UK's commitment to the Afghan people, as they set about the huge task of rebuilding their country, remains as strong as our commitment to them in removing the Taliban from power," Hoon told parliament.
"Our contribution to the ISAF is a clear demonstration of this commitment."
Britain's leadership of the UN-mandated force, under the command of Major General John McColl, will last for three months, after which time another country will take over for a further twelve weeks.
Hoon said there would be a "significant reduction" in the number of British troops deployed to the region after it steps down from its lead role.
"This does not mean that our commitment to participating in the ISAF will end completely at the three-month point," he said.
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority country contributing to the force, has "expressed an interest" in replacing Britain, Hoon said.
As well as Britain and Turkey, the other European countries contributing to the force are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
New Zealand is the only non-European nation taking part.
Hoon said the ISAF would operate in Kabul alone and carry out joint patrols with Afghan police as well as assisting the interim government in reconstruction, developing security structures and training local security forces.
The number of troops already attached to the force has topped 1,000, British spokesman Major Guy Richardson said on Thursday from Kabul.
He added that between 560 and 580 British troops and 200 French soldiers were in the Afghan capital.
Afghan Central Bank Tries to Rebuild
By TED ANTHONY, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan (news - web sites) (AP) - They showed up on the morning the Taliban quit Kabul - the central bank's president, his cashier and a few armed men. They loaded up more than $7 million in dollars, Afghanis and Pakistani rupees. Then, like other Taliban, they were gone.
Eight weeks later, the country's central financial institution, the Pashtu-named Da Afghanistan Bank, is a mess. Money is scarce, fixtures bare, walls crumbling and staircases chipped. There are no tellers, which at least means there are few withdrawals.
And on the second floor of the cavernous institution, its new president, using his new computer, is trying to put things back together.
``They did very bad things,'' said Said Ullah Hashimi, who spent five years as ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani's finance adviser before being appointed head of the bank when the Taliban left in mid-November.
It was on Nov. 13 that the bank's Taliban president, Mullah Mohammed Ahmedi, showed up with his cashier and an assistant, Hashimi said, telling a story that bank employees told him when he arrived.
With no checks, no paperwork, they simply went into the vaults and emerged with piles of cash - $5.3 million, 18 billion Afghanis ($600,000) and 72 million Pakistani rupees ($1.2 million) - enough cash to fill a wheelbarrow.
And that was only from the main branch in Kabul. With domestic communications still spotty, no one knows yet how much is gone from Da Afghanistan Bank branches around the country.
``It was looting. There's no other word for it,'' Hashimi said. ``They used the cover of Islam, but they were not Islam. In the end, they were crooks.''
The banking system in Afghanistan was hardly in good shape when Rabbani's government withdrew in 1996. But when Hashimi returned to Kabul and was appointed by Rabbani nine days later, he found a building that had been dragged into the past.
For one, there were no active interest-bearing accounts; the Taliban considered those un-Islamic. Women employees had been fired long ago. Dust from snuff, also a Taliban staple, was everywhere, he said.
Da Afghanistan Bank has money, Hashimi says, ``but not enough.'' Customs and public utilities - water, electric, even some telephone - are providing limited liquid assets. Funds in overseas banks, frozen from Taliban access, are being released this week, which bank officials say will help some.
But restoring Afghans' confidence in banking may take a while.
``The bank system needs a very strong administration and security. People haven't trusted the bank in a decade,'' said Ahmed Zia Rafat, shopping for a wood stove in Kabul on Thursday morning. ``When the bank is accessible in all provinces, and people can see its inner workings, then they will trust it again.''
Despite the country's bleak financial situation, though, its currency, the Afghani, has proved reasonably hardy.
It had been about 73,000 to the dollar in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and strengthened during the last week of Taliban rule in November. When the Taliban left Kabul and the northern alliance rolled into town, it surged to 23,000 in a week. In recent weeks, it has hovered at about 30,000 to the dollar.
But can Afghanistan's central bank - and, by extension, the nation's financial sector - ever get back on its feet?
``Ever is a long time,'' said Robert J. Barbera, chief economist at Hoenig & Co. of Rye Brook, N.Y., and an analyst of the global financial market.
It will, however, take a while, he said. ``Enlightened self-interest will lead us to infuse enough capital into Afghanistan to make it a thriving economy, and private investment will follow,'' Barbera said.
For Hashimi, that can't happen soon enough.
He is asking people to reinvest in Afghanistan, though he knows investors will be skittish. Some have already called, he says, and asked about building factories. He points out that the Bonn agreement creating Afghanistan's interim government says the banking system must be reconstructed.
``The Taliban didn't allow foreigners to come into their bank,'' Hashimi said, breaking into a grin. ``We have no problem with that.''
Now, Hashimi has five phones and a fax on his desk. He is talking about rebuilding the sprawling anteroom that holds what his assistant says is Afghanistan's biggest carpet.
Most importantly, he says ordinary citizens of Kabul are starting to ask about putting their money back in a system they retreated from long ago.
``Our whole banking system is destroyed. We'll take what help we can,'' he said. ``And if someone helps us, we'll never forget them.''
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff, 1/10/2002
ORKHAM BORDER CROSSING, Afghanistan - A short but fierce gun battle broke out between competing warlords at this jammed post on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border yesterday, in another example of the increasing violence in the southeastern part of the country since the Taliban's fall last month.
As hundreds of people laden with luggage raced away on foot, cars and trucks sped away, all seeking to avoid the gun battle. The two groups fired on each other for about 10 minutes, according to witnesses. The issue was control of the lucrative border post.
At least two civilians were injured, and shortly after the shootout an ambulance was seen careening through the area, heading for the city of Jalalabad about 45 miles north. Crowds huddled around a bullet-ridden four-wheel-drive vehicle that had three of its tires blown out about 200 yards from the border.
Witnesses said there have been previous gun battles at the post, but that yesterday's firefight was among the worst. Trucks abandoned during the battle were seen being looted by mujahideen. But within a half-hour of the gun battle the border post was reopened, allowing hundreds of people to enter Pakistan after traveling through the historic Khyber Pass.
''This happened before, but we have heard the commanders are fighting worse now,'' said Abdullah, a witness who repaired tires a short distance from the gunfight. Like many Afghans, he goes by one name.
The new Afghan government has pledged to increase security throughout the country by creating a national army and by using an international peacekeeping force. But until a stronger government force arrives, local mujahideen will probably continue to fight for control of the crossing.
Abdullah said gunmen at the post sometimes demand cargo from trucks driving through, and they are never refused. ''Whoever manages the post makes money,'' he said.
While the region around Jalalabad, which includes Torkham, is far safer than in the days immediately following the Taliban's fall, many people here say the area is becoming more chaotic.
Three warlords run the Jalalabad region, but gunfights have increased this week after one reportedly was removed by the government. Yesterday's battle was reportedly between the two remaining warlords, who are seeking to expand their territory.
Kandahar and nearby areas are considered so dangerous that the United Nations has refused to give security clearance so aid workers can distribute food and other aid in those regions. Clearance has been given for Jalalabad, although not for its outlying areas.
Local warlords insist that they do arrest bandits and robbers, but many suspects are often released the next day. Bribes demanded from foreign journalists and other visitors have increased. A short drive over a bridge to the Tora Bora mountains - where US warplanes conducted heavy bombing - was once free, but this week cost $100. To visit key caves in the region, the asking price was more than $1,000 last week.
Meanwhile, reports of stolen food, robberies, and violent crime are up, according to local aid and hospital workers. Residents have taken to sitting on the roofs to guard their houses against robbers, who are often mujahideen loyal to local warlords.
In Jalalabad, shopkeepers have begun to sell videos, cassettes, and computer disks they say were taken from abandoned Tora Bora caves. Gunmen no older than 17 show off to foreigners their skill at firing into the ground and leaping.
While many residents say they can live with the pickup trucks filled with gun-toting mujahideen, they cannot deal with the randomness of everyday violence.
''People do get killed,'' said Dr. Gulo Jan Wahdat Shinwari, who works at the Jalalabad public hospital where a woman was being treated after being caught in the crossfire of a mujahideen battle three nights ago.
''We need someone to tell them to stop,'' Shinwari said.
After the firefight at the Torkham border post, travelers looked around uneasily at the gunmen dressed in camouflage and wondered whether another shootout was about to begin.
Apparently, no one won the fight, said another onlooker, ''so there will be fighting again.''
''It's just that so many children are here, and it's so crowded,'' the onlooker said. ''We have no place to go when the guns start, and they aim at anyone.''
This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 1/10/2002.
By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Until a Marine radio operator became the first woman in the U.S. military to die in the war against terrorism, the conflict seemed like a battle waged just by men. Now, besides TV images of bearded Green Berets trekking across mountains and burly Marines hunching in foxholes, there's the photo of Sgt. Jeannette Winters, one of seven servicemembers who died Wednesday when their Marine cargo plane crashed in Pakistan. Winters, 25, was one of an estimated 6,000 women warriors who have quietly helped rout the Taliban who had ruled Afghanistan, and the al-Qaeda terrorist network based there
By Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY
01/10/2002 - Updated 09:12 PM ET
WASHINGTON — The closest cooperation between the United States and Iran in two decades has been dealt a setback over Iran's arms shipments to the Palestinians and its wariness of the new U.S.-backed government in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Sept. 11 attacks spurred U.S. and Iranian officials to share intelligence on a common enemy: the Taliban regime that had been harboring terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. But on Thursday, the Bush administration charged that the Tehran government has sent increasing numbers of intelligence operatives into western Afghanistan and allowed al-Qaeda members to escape into Iran.
President Bush warned the Iranians against trying to undermine the fledgling government of interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. "If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the government, the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic ways, initially," he said. Bush added, "We would very much like them to be active participants in a stable Afghanistan."
U.S. officials said Iran is providing safe haven to a small number of al-Qaeda fighters. The fleeing fighters did not appear to include any high-ranking terrorists implicated in anti-U.S. attacks.
In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi denied that Iran was harboring any al-Qaeda members or trying to undermine the Karzai government.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was cryptic on the issue: "Iran is a neighboring state. It has a porous border. People go back and forth throughout history and in recent history."
The report came as the Bush administration said it has confirmed that Iran was the source of a shipment of 50 tons of weapons en route to the Palestinian Authority that Israel intercepted last week in the Red Sea.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration had "compelling" evidence of involvement by Iran; Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group; and senior Palestinian officials. Other U.S. officials said senior Iranians — and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — must have known of the shipment. Iran and Arafat have denied knowledge of it.
The new U.S. charges come after some signs that Iran's conservative Muslim government might be ready to reach out to the United States 22 years after the two nations broke diplomatic relations following the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Iran had condemned the attacks of Sept. 11, allowed 65,000 tons of U.S. food and other humanitarian aid to pass through the country to struggling Afghans and agreed to help any U.S. pilots needing to land in Iran in distress. State Department officials met repeatedly with Iranians in larger groups to discuss Afghanistan's post-Taliban rule, and Iran had signed off on the creation of Karzai's interim government.
Public sentiment in Iran favors reconciliation with the United States. U.S. products, such as Coca-Cola, are avidly consumed.
But the Islamic government's backing for militant Palestinian groups, some considered terrorists by Israel and the United States, has been an obstacle to improved ties.
For a time, Iran appeared to mute its opposition to a U.S.-backed plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Until six months ago, we were seeing a moderation in the Iranian tone," Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Nabil Fahmy said Thursday. "They were not supportive of the peace process but said the Palestinians could do what they wanted."
Recently, however, rhetoric has grown harsher. Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani suggested last month that Israel could be the target of an "Islamic" nuclear attack. Iran is believed to be trying to develop nuclear weapons.
The attempt to ship arms to the Palestinian Authority also represents a shift in Iranian practices. In the past, Iran's government had poor relations with Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Instead, U.S. experts say, it provided funding for the more militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, religious extremists that have carried out suicide bombings in Israel.
A senior Israeli security official said that by reaching out to Arafat, Iran was seeking broader access to the Palestinians.
Had the smuggling aboard the cargo ship succeeded, the weapons would have been a boon to the Palestinians' 17-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation, U.S. officials said.
Israel, which has received $2 billion a year in U.S. military aid for more than two decades, retains a vastly superior arsenal that includes tanks and fighter jets. But the smuggled weapons and other supplies, which included more than two tons of explosives and anti-tank weapons, would have enabled Palestinians to carry out more lethal suicide bombings and to attack armored buses that transport Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli security official said the shipment also included rockets and other artillery that would have given the Palestinians the ability to strike deep within Israel without putting themselves at risk.
"It's bad news on all fronts," says Geoffrey Kemp, a Mideast expert at the Nixon Center, a think tank in Washington. "Arafat's reputation has sunk to new depths, and Iran is playing dangerous games."
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