Associated Press WriterKANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- The first planeload of al-Qaida prisoners departed a Marine base at Kandahar's airport Thursday night, flown to a U.S. military detention camp in Cuba, a spokesman said.
Small arms fire erupted from the northern edge of the base as the plane took off, and the Marines responded with heavy fire, Marine Lt. James Jarvis said. A sustained firefight lasted at least a half-hour, witnesses said. Military helicopters were circling the area, looking for the source of the incoming fire, Jarvis said.
"We have encountered enemy fire and we are engaging them," Jarvis said. He said he knew of no reports of injuries or deaths at the base.
The military says it's taking no chances as its transfers al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners from this base to a new detention facility being built at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Heavy security is being impose to prevent a bloody uprising.
Prisoners were to be chained to their seats -- and possibly be sedated, forced to use portable urinals and be fed by their guards -- during the flights to Cuba, according to USA Today and television reports.
More than 300 prisoners are held at Kandahar. The first group headed for Cuba on Thursday reportedly included around 20 prisoners. The Pentagon has not said how many will be transfered.
In preparing security for the operation, the military has been examining earlier uprisings by Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners -- particularly one in November at a prison outside the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. That revolt took three days to suppress and left dozens dead -- including a CIA operative, Johnny "Mike" Spann.
"We are determined to make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of Mazar-e-Sharif," said Jarvis, spokesman for the Marines at Kandahar airport. "There will be no breach of security."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said commanders at Guantanamo and those involved in the transport had "reviewed the uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif" and other prisoner revolts. The commanders could use "appropriate restraint" for the prisoners, he said.
"There are among these prisoners people perfectly willing to kill themselves and others," he told journalists. Rumsfeld would not confirm whether the transfer had begun, but said there was "an intention to begin taking some relatively some numbers" soon.
Meanwhile, Pakistani and U.S. recovery teams converged on the crash site of a Marine KC-130 refueling tanker that struck a mountain and exploded in flames Wednesday near Pakistan's remote Shamsi air base. Seven Marines were killed, the worst American casualty toll of the Afghan war.
The base -- in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, an area of vast deserts and rugged mountains -- has been used by the U.S. military as a forward staging point. U.S. officials said there was no indication it had been hit by hostile fire, but the cause was unknown.
Anti-Taliban Afghan forces have steadily been turning over captured al-Qaida members to the Marines, and more have come from Pakistani troops intercepting fugitives trying to flee across the border from the bombed-out mountain hide-outs at Tora Bora and Khost in eastern Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials on Thursday repeated their demands that the Afghan government hand over captured top Taliban and al-Qaida figures, after seven Taliban leaders -- including the ex-justice minister -- were set free after they surrendered in Kandahar.
Jarvis told a daily briefing Thursday that 45 new prisoners arrived at Kandahar airport overnight.
The Pentagon has repeatedly warned that detained al-Qaida fighters are willing to kill themselves and others. Aside from the uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif, a group of prisoners killed several Pakistani guards as they broke free last month and it took days to hunt them down in the mountains. Other al-Qaida fighters have been holed up in Kandahar's hospital for weeks, threatening to blow themselves up if Afghan officials try to detain them. One killed himself with a grenade as he tried to escape the hospital earlier this week.
At Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, a temporary detention area called Camp X-Ray has room for 100 prisoners and soon could house 220. A more permanent site under construction is expected to house up to 2,000.
There, prisoners will be isolated in individual, open-air fenced cells with metal roofs. They will sleep on mats under halogen floodlights. They could get wet from rain, but officials say they will be treated humanely. The Red Cross and other organizations will monitor conditions.
Meanwhile, Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said his country was seeing new calm and said his Cabinet had ordered armed fighters belonging to the various factions nominally allied to government off the streets of Kabul.
"All over Afghanistan there's no fighting any more, for almost two, three weeks now. The country is generally very, very peaceful," Karzai said on CNN's Larry King Live. "There are some instances of lawlessness on the highways and one or two incidents in the cities. That's it, but we should try and improve it further."
U.S. displeasure at the decision by Kandahar authorities to free seven high-ranking Taliban figures had Karzai's government on the defensive.
"We want any of the high-ranking Taliban or al-Qaida," Jarvis said. "We want to have them in custody," Jarvis said Thursday. Still, he praised Gul Agha, the governor of Kandahar, saying he has generally given "a lot" of support to U.S. forces.
Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad told reporters Wednesday that the government was determining whether the freed Taliban officials were "war criminals." They included Nooruddin Turabi, the 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.
Samad said the government only learned Wednesday that the Taliban prisoners had been freed and it was still trying to determine who they all are.
Negotiations on the surrender of ex-Taliban figures have frustrated the U.S.-led coalition as it pursues remnants of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, blamed for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who gave al-Qaida his country as a base of operations, reportedly escaped last week during surrender negotiations after being surrounded in the mountainous Baghran region.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency cited unidentified sources as saying several U.S. helicopters carrying about 50 troops arrived overnight at Khost. U.S. ground forces and warplanes have gone into operation against a complex of caves, tunnels and buildings used as an al-Qaida training camp at Zawar Kili, near Khost, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.