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Detainees May Include Al Qaeda, Taliban Leaders

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2001 – Five detainees are aboard the USS Peleliu, and another 15 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters will soon be in U.S. custody, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters today.

An Australian and John Walker, the American found among captives after a prison uprising near Mazar-e Sharif in early December, are aboard the Peleliu. The remaining three on board the warship are as yet unidentified, Wolfowitz said, but U.S. officials believe "they may be fairly important people." The Peleliu is afloat off the coast of Pakistan.

Opposition forces hold hundreds to thousands of detainees throughout the country, Wolfowitz said. Fifteen of those imprisoned in Shebergan, northwest of Mazar-e Sharif, have been identified for interrogation by U.S. authorities. They are en route to a U.S. prison in Kandahar and are expected to arrive there today.

U.S. officials may be able to obtain information from the captives that would lead to the capture of other terrorists in Afghanistan -- and within the United States, Wolfowitz said.

Wolfowitz was joined at the podium during a Pentagon press briefing by U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

In Kandahar, U.S. Marines and Army soldiers are repairing the airfield, clearing mines and building a detention facility. To date, four U.S. service members have been injured during mine-clearing operations in Afghanistan.

In the Tora Bora region, U.S. special operations forces and opposition forces continue searching "step-by-step, cave- by-cave" for Al Qaeda and Taliban troops, Pace said. There are several hundred caves in the valleys in the region, he noted, and bombs have closed some caves.

Pace noted that currently no bombs were falling on Afghanistan. Yet, he said, U.S. and coalition aircraft -- B-52 and B-1 bombers, as well as F-14 and F/A-18 fighter jets, and Italian Harrier jets -- remained in the skies ready to respond to calls for close air support or bombing strikes.

"The aircraft are available overhead," Pace said. "Some days there are a lot of targets; some days there are not. It's simply a matter of our forces on the ground calling for support."

As the ground forces try to root out pockets of enemy troops, he noted, U.S. officials aim "to provide proper support at the proper time."

"Sometimes the best weapon system is a individual with a rifle," he said. "Other times, the best weapons system is a plane with a bomb."  

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DoD News Briefing - Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz and Gen. Pace, Dec. 18, 2001

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