Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Helicopters filled with U.S. Marines in full combat gear took off from a base in southern Afghanistan Monday on an undisclosed mission, a Defense Department official said.
The helicopters left just before sunset from the Marines' base at the airport in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. They appeared to head toward the northwest, according to an Associated Press photographer who witnessed the departure.
A Pentagon official speaking on condition of anonymity disclosed the departure. Military officials declined public comment.
U.S. forces have been searching for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar since Dec. 7, when Kandahar fell to anti-Taliban Afghan forces. Kandahar is Omar's hometown and was the last major Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan.
Omar probably is somewhere in the mountains northwest of Kandahar, a U.S. intelligence official said Monday.
Afghan officials have said recently that Omar may be in the Baghran area about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar. Haji Gulalai, the new intelligence chief in Kandahar, recently said he has informants with satellite telephones in the mountainous area.
Terrorist leader Osama bin Laden also remains at large. The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday that the latest reliable reports suggest bin Laden is still alive. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said it was unclear whether bin Laden was still in Afghanistan or had fled to neighboring Pakistan.
U.S. officials say they believe bin Laden was in the mountainous Tora Bora area of eastern Afghanistan at least until mid-December. In a new videotape, the terrorist leader wanted in connected with the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States implied he was speaking in early or mid-December.
Meanwhile Monday, U.S. forces in Afghanistan took custody of 30 more suspected Taliban or al-Qaida prisoners, said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Cynthia Colin.
Twenty-five more prisoners were taken to the base at Kandahar, bringing the total there to 164, Colin said. Another five joined the two being held at the air base in Bagram, north of Kabul.
The additions bring the total number of prisoners held by the United States to 180. Another prisoner is being held in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Eight others, including American John Walker Lindh, are held aboard the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan.
Military officials also disputed reports that a U.S. airstrike early Saturday killed more than 100 civilians in an Afghan village.
The airstrike hit a compound used by Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, not a village, said Cmdr. Dave Culler, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
"If any innocents or civilians were killed in the attack, the cause would be the Taliban and al-Qaida leaders living alongside people who are not complicit with their crimes," Culler said Monday.
Marines also continued preparations to hand over the Kandahar base to soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
The Army troops will take over operations at the airport base, where Marines have been preparing runways for humanitarian flights and building facilities to hold hundreds of detainees.
Interrogators from the military, FBI and CIA are questioning the prisoners about the al-Qaida network and bin Laden's whereabouts.
The Marines being replaced at the Kandahar facility are part of two Marine Expeditionary Units based on amphibious assault ships now in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. Their replacement in Afghanistan will give the Marines "the opportunity to prepare for future missions," said another Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mike Humm. He could not say when the transfer would be complete.
The United States is taking custody of prisoners who officials believe might have useful information about bin Laden's network or could be charged with terrorism or war crimes. U.S. forces have been moving batches of detainees from the northern town of Shibergan to Kandahar since Friday.
An undetermined number of the prisoners eventually will be sent to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Construction of facilities for the prisoners there is expected to take several weeks.
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