KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Seven high-ranking Taliban officials -- including the ex-justice minister -- surrendered to Afghan commanders but were set free by local officials, the Afghan government said Wednesday, even though U.S. officials want Taliban leaders turned over.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad told reporters the government was determining whether the Taliban officials were "war criminals." They included Nooruddin Turabi, the Taliban's one-eyed, one-legged justice minister, who drew up the militia's repressive version of Islamic law -- including restrictions on women -- and created the religious police to enforce it.
A State Department spokesman said senior Taliban officials should be in U.S. hands. "We would expect that to be the case with these individuals," Richard Boucher said in Washington.
Negotiations on the surrender of ex-Taliban figures have recently frustrated the U.S.-led coalition as it pursues the remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar reportedly escaped during surrender negotiations after being surrounded in the mountainous north of Kandahar.
In other military activity, U.S. officials said airstrikes continued Wednesday against at complex of caves, tunnels and buildings used as an al-Qaida training camp at Zawar Kili in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban leaders were let go, said Jalal Khan, a close associate of Kandahar's governor Gul Agha, after they recognized the government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and promised to stay out of politics.
"Those men who have surrendered are our brothers, and we have allowed them to live in a peaceful manner. They will not be handed over to America," Khan said.
The government was trying to determine who the seven men freed in Kandahar were and whether the decision to let them go was "appropriate," Samad said. He said so far there had been no U.S. request for their handover.
But Pentagon officials have said the new Afghan leaders are fully aware of the U.S. desire to have custody of certain Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
The Pentagon was still working to confirm the seven had been freed. But if they were, "we would expect that they (Afghan officials) would take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that these folks are not left on their own," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan.
Headed for home?
Samad said the government only learned on Wednesday that the Taliban prisoners had been freed. "We assume they went back to their homes and villages," said Samad. "Maybe guarantees have been given that they will not leave their villages."
He answered obliquely when asked if the Karzai government would hand the men over to the United States. "This is an issue that is being followed and should be followed by all concerned parties in Kabul and Kandahar." Among the seven men was Abdul Haq, formerly the Taliban's security chief in the western city of Herat, Samad said. But the identity of the others was unclear. "It's still not 100 percent certain for us either as to who exactly some of these people are," Samad said.
Justice minister Turabi drew up the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law, including bans on music and restrictions on women. His religious police roamed the streets beating women considered not properly covered, as well as men who trimmed their beards or cut their hair.