Powell promises aid to rid Afghanistan of terrorists

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan in 25 years, promised Thursday the United States would help rebuild the country and wipe out the "contamination" of terrorism.

Powell told Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghan leader, the United States would make a substantial financial commitment at next week's international aid donors conference in Tokyo and that U.S. forces would be relentless in pursuing the remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"This country needs everything," Powell said on NBC's "Today" show. "It needs a banking system. It needs a health-care system. It needs a sanitation system. It needs a phone system. It needs road construction."

Prime Minister Karzai emphasized Afghanistan's deep needs during a joint news conference at the presidential palace.

"The Afghan people have been asking for a staying commitment, a staying partnership, from the United States to Afghanistan in order to make the region safe, in order to make Afghanistan stand back on its own feet and continue to fight against terrorism or the return of terrorism in any form to this country," Karzai said.

Powell assured Karzai that Washington would be steadfast.

"We don't want to leave any contamination behind," Powell said of continuing military efforts to purge Afghanistan of terrorists. "That is in the interests of the Afghan people and certainly the mission we c

In a continuing sign of lawlessness outside Kabul, two trucks belonging to the U.N.'s World Food Program were hijacked by gunmen in northern Afghanistan, the United Nations said Thursday, in the latest report of banditry hampering aid operations in the country.

U.S. troops on Thursday were helping Afghan forces in a disarmament campaign in one of country's most potentially volatile regions, where weapons are plentiful and law enforcement is minimal.

The joint U.S.-Afghan force was collecting weapons house to house in the southern town of Spinboldak, near the border with Pakistan in Kandahar province, once the heartland of the Taliban. Marine demolitions teams exploded old warheads for surface-to-air missiles discovered at a Taliban air-defense site, Marine officials said at a daily briefing in Kandahar, where the United States has its largest base in Afghanistan.

Despite intense U.S. airstrikes on suspected al-Qaida hideouts in Afghanistan, how many of its members remain at large is unclear. Many may have fled into Pakistan and gone into hiding in the rugged territory.

Five men clad in burqas, the all-covering female garment once mandated by the Taliban, were arrested Wednesday in Pakistan's Punjab province following a high-speed chase that began after the men's car ran down a pedestrian, witnesses and officials said.

Interior Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that some foreign nationals, including Arabs, were among the arrested men. Ministry sources said they believed the arrested men belonged to al-Qaida.

Three Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were injured when an unknown item exploded in a burn pit while they were burning trash at their base camp in Kandahar. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said in a brief statement that the injuries were not life-threatening. The Marines were evaluated, treated at the base and are expected to be transported to another facility for follow-on medical care. No other details were provided.

Powell, the first secretary of state to visit Afghanistan since Henry Kissinger in 1976, came on a secret flight plan from Islamabad, Pakistan, to the Bagram airport north of Kabul. There, he transferred to a U.S. Army helicopter for a flight to the capital's newly reopened international airport, still bearing the scars of relentless airstrikes during the U.S. bombing campaign of last year.

Soldiers in full camouflage gear watched intently as Powell later stood amid children waving small U.S. flags at the formal reopening of the U.S. Embassy. The secretary, during his five-hour stay, handed out awards to Afghan employees who looked after the embassy during its more than decade-long closure.

In other developments:

-- The European Union's head office plans to donate at least $175 million for reconstruction aid in Afghanistan this year, EU officials said.

--In Britain, two Algerian men allegedly involved in a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris were charged with membership in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Brahim Benmerzouga and Baghdad Meziane had been in custody in Leicester since late September and were suspected of involvement in a plot against the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Elsewhere, police in the Philippines arrested three men with suspected al-Qaida links.

As the United States broadens its fight on terrorism, the growing number of global arrests has drawn increasing attention from human rights monitoring groups. Much of the concern has focused on conditions of prisoners sent from Afghanistan to a U.S. Navy detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said its workers would hold private meetings with the Guantanamo prisoners. The Red Cross will make public comments about conditions, but will not reveal details of individual meetings, ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen said.

Some human-rights campaigners have criticized housing the prisoners in cells open to the elements of less than 50 square feet as below accepted standards.

U.S. officials insist conditions do not violate human rights. The United States is reserving the right to try al-Qaida and Taliban captives on its own terms and is not calling them "prisoners of war," a designation that would invoke the Geneva Convention.

But Canada, whose troops are to begin working with U.S. forces in Afghanistan next month, will treat any captives as prisoners of war, the Globe and Mail newspaper quoted a Defense Department spokeswoman as saying.