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Archive for Saturday, February 9, 2002

Former official undergoing questioning after surrender

February 9, 2002

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— The Taliban's foreign minister turned himself in Friday in Afghanistan, becoming the highest-ranking member of the former ruling militia to surrender, U.S. officials said.

Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil turned himself in to Afghan officials in Kandahar and was transferred to a U.S. military base at the city's airport, where he was being held Friday night, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. authorities were questioning the former Taliban official and were hoping to gain valuable information from him.

Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said he could not confirm the surrender, but said the interim Afghan government had been expecting Taliban officials to give themselves up.

"We have been expecting some important Taliban leaders who are on the run to either turn themselves in or to be caught and to be brought to justice," Samad told The Associated Press.

The surrender came as American soldiers gathered at a remote site in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan to determine whether senior al-Qaida figures were among those killed in a missile strike by a CIA-operated drone aircraft, senior Pentagon officials said.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, a 27-foot-long drone operated remotely by controllers on the ground, attacked "some individuals" on Monday, but he didn't know whether they were al-Qaida.

"That's what they're in there gathering the intelligence on," he said, referring to the more than 50 U.S. soldiers who arrived there Friday. Myers said they were to begin their search of the area at first light Saturday. Other officials said the site is at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet.

'No idea' on bin Laden

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discounted speculation that Osama bin Laden was among those killed.

"We just simply have no idea," he said.

Neither Rumsfeld nor Myers offered much detail on the circumstances of the attack, which other officials said involved the use of at least one Hellfire air-to-ground missile launched from the Predator. Myers said there was one truck in the vicinity of the individuals who were targeted.

The attack took place in the vicinity of Zhawar Kili, in Paktia province, where members of al-Qaida have been spotted in the past.

Geneva Convention concerns

On a related topic, Rumsfeld said President Bush was aware, when he decided this week that the Geneva Conventions on treatment of war prisoners will apply to the Taliban militia but not to al-Qaida fighters, that his decision could have implications for American soldiers captured in future conflicts.

The concern of some in the administration was that failing to apply the conventions at all might set a precedent that could be followed by a hostile state that captured U.S. forces and wanted to deny them POW status.

"The decision was made by the president with that very much in mind," Rumsfeld said. He added that in his opinion the decision will in no way jeopardize the status of U.S. soldiers in future wars.

"I am very confident that we are not doing anything to in any way disadvantage the rights and circumstances of the U.S. military," he said.

At the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 186 al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners are being held in makeshift cells, there will be no changes in their treatment or their legal status as a result of Bush's decision, Rumsfeld said.

"We will continue to treat them consistent with the principles of fairness, freedom and justice that our nation was founded on, the principles that they obviously abhor and which they sought to attack and destroy," Rumsfeld said.

Questioning continues

About 105 of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have undergone interrogations, he said, and the questioning will continue in hope of gleaning information that could pre-empt any future attacks by al-Qaida terrorists.

Rumsfeld complained of "isolated pockets of international hyperventilation" over U.S. handling of the prisoners. He referred to critics who reacted strongly to an official Defense Department photograph of newly arrived prisoners kneeling on the ground and wearing earmuffs and blackout goggles.

"The newspaper headlines that yelled, 'Torture! What's next? Electrodes?' and all of this rubbish was so inexcusable that it does make one wonder why we put out any photographs, if that's the way they're going to be treated, so irresponsibly," he said.

Rumsfeld added that he was not considering any new restrictions on news coverage of the detention camp.

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