Marines prepare handover of Kandahar base to Army

Associated Press WriterKANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Dirty but delighted, U.S. Marines on Friday started climbing out of foxholes on the perimeter of the Kandahar base where they had lived for weeks, turning them over to Army troops taking control of the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

As the transfer moved ahead at Kandahar, Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai departed on his first trip abroad since his December inauguration, aiming to drum up money to help rebuild his nation, torn by three decades of war.

After a stop in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform a Muslim pilgrimage, Karzai heads to Tokyo for a conference of donor nations aimed at raising an initial $5 billion in aid. Karzai will return home, then head off again to Washington for a Jan. 28 meeting with President Bush, said an aide, known by the single name Humayan.

At the Kandahar base, the Army's 101st Airborne Division is to take formal command on Saturday; about 800 of its soldiers are already there and planes were streaming in Friday bearing more soldiers. Handing over the base to the Army would free the Marines, who arrived in Afghanistan in late November, for the quick assault operations they are trained for.

With a note of humor, the Marines left perimeter posts, where they have been on watch for gunmen who have occasionally opened fire on the base.

"Give me a hug, I haven't had a shower in 42 days," one Marine said.

Army troops took their place, heading out to the dug out positions around the base. Army Sgt. Shawn Coulter of Honesdale, Pa., said the Marines had told him he'd "learn to love it." Asked if he believed that, he said; "Probably not."

"We don't take the responsibility lightly ... this is a very, very dangerous place," said an Army spokesman, Maj. Ignacio Preez.

Another planeload of 30 detainees suspected of fighting for the Taliban or Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network was flown from Kandahar late Thursday, but unlike previous groups, the prisoners were taken to Pakistan rather than the U.S. Naval detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military spokesmen declined to give further information about the flight, but the detainees were presumed to be Pakistani nationals.

Obliquely criticizing the United States, the International Committee of the Red Cross, charged with monitoring the well-being of prisoners of war, said the Guantanamo detainees should be granted that status.

"The concept of 'battlefield detainees' does not exist in international humanitarian law," said ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen in Geneva. "All people captured on a battlefield are assumed automatically to be prisoners of war."

The Pentagon says that while ICRC delegates will be granted access to the prisoners, they are "battlefield detainees," implying that they do not automatically qualify to be treated as POWs -- an internationally defined status.

As Karzai departed from the Afghan capital, Kabul, his interim government -- which is nearly flat broke and facing the prospect of building the country up from nearly nothing -- said it needed the world's help.

"We pledged to the international community ... that we would bring change in our country," Interior Minister Younus Qanooni said. "Now it is their turn to pledge their help ... If they will not help and assist us, we will face many problems."

The Tokyo conference, taking place on Monday and Tuesday with some 50 nations attending, aims to raise $5 billion dollars for the first 2 1/2 years of reconstruction. But Japanese officials stressed that longer-term commitments are needed.

The meeting with Bush, meanwhile, will provide an opportunity for the United States and Afghanistan to develop a partnership against terrorism, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

"We look forward to an Afghanistan that is prosperous, accountable to its citizens and at peace with its neighbors and the international community," Fleischer said in Washington Thursday.

Secretary of State Colin Powell met with the head of Afghanistan's interim government on Thursday. He pledged a long-term U.S. commitment to wiping out the "contamination" of terrorism in the country.

Other nations, meanwhile, moved against suspected members of al-Qaida that had been sheltered by Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers.

In a first for British authorities, two Algerian men suspected of being involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris were charged Thursday with membership in al-Qaida, blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Police in the Philippines arrested three men with suspected al-Qaida links; sources in Pakistan said five suspects had been arrested following a high-speed chase, and Bosnian authorities turned over six Algerians suspected of having terrorist links to U.S. military authorities.

In Indonesia, a news report said a Pakistani citizen had been deported to Egypt in connection with suspected terrorist activities, including last month's alleged attempt by a man to attack a U.S. airliner with explosives hidden in his shoes.

The Pentagon has not publicly identified any of detainees held by the United States at the Kandahar base or at Guantanamo. But defense officials said that among those at Guantanamo is the former Taliban army chief of staff, Mullah Fazel Mazloom.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday said he could not predict how long detainees would be kept at Guantanamo. Some may be tried before a special U.S. military tribunal, others in U.S. civilian courts and still others will be sent back to their home countries for prosecution, he said.

He held out the possibility that some could be kept at Guantanamo Bay "for a period" even after they have been interrogated, the defense secretary said.

U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan reported several injuries, none life-threatening.

Three U.S. Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were injured when an unknown item exploded in a pit where they were burning trash at their Kandahar base. And an Australian commando lost two toes after stepping on a mine while on patrol with U.S.-led coalition forces north of Kandahar.

In other developments:

--In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency said it had relocated some 2,600 Afghan refugees from the Killi Faizo camp at Pakistan's border to camps farther inside Pakistan.

--Afghanistan's new ban on cultivating the opium poppy will take a bite out of the global narcotics trade, but only if farmers get aid as an incentive not to grow it, the Vienna-based U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention said Thursday.

--Twenty Turkish troops left for Kabul as part of an advance party of peacekeepers, a military official said.

Comments