KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Bent under the weight of backpacks, M-16s and rocket launchers, U.S. Marines on Saturday took flights out of Afghanistan, after handing over to the Army the military base they set up in the Taliban heartland.
The Marines looked forward to TV, soft beds and meals "that didn't come out of a bag," said Cpl. Marcus Rounsaville, 22, of Jackson, Miss. He spent a month in the bunkers guarding the base at Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, the largest concentration of American troops in the country.
The Army's 101st Airborne Division takes control of the base as the focus of international operations shifts from routing the ousted ruling Taliban militia and the al-Qaida terror network to rebuilding this country shattered after nearly 23 years of war.
In a sign of the change, Afghan and Russian officials Saturday formally reopened the Salang Tunnel, a key route between Kabul and the north through forbidding mountain terrain.
Repair workers removed tons of concrete rubble and other debris from the tunnel, the entrance to which anti-Taliban fighters sealed in 1997 to defend their strongholds in the north. Russian experts also cleared the tunnel of more than 6,700 tons of mines and explosives.
Twenty-six Russian trucks carrying 100 tons of flour Saturday became the first convoy through the two-mile tunnel, which will ease aid deliveries from countries to the north.
Help from Saudis
Meanwhile, Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, on his first trip abroad since taking office, met with Saudi Arabia's rulers, King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, in Riyadh. The Saudi leaders promised "in principle to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan," an Afghan diplomat said on condition of anonymity. The amount was not immediately known.
Saudi Arabia, which was once a supporter of the ousted Taliban regime, will be a major participant at a two-day donors' conference for Afghanistan that opens in Tokyo on Monday. The gathering, which Karzai will attend, is expected to raise $3 billion for the next 2 1/2 years of rebuilding, Japanese press reports said Saturday.
In an interview published Saturday, Karzai said Western countries must deliver on promises of financial aid or Afghanistan will again become a "sanctuary for terrorists."
"I can only hope that the Western world doesn't turn away from Afghanistan again," Karzai told the German magazine Der Spiegel.
Afghans say the decision by the United States and its allies to ignore Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989 led to civil conflict which paved the way for the Taliban to take power in 1996.
Representatives of the United States and more than 50 countries and international organizations are participating in the Tokyo conference. Japan reportedly will promise a $500 million donation; the United States $400 million; and the 15 nations of the European Union some $350 million.
In other developments:
Spanish police arrested two suspected al-Qaida operatives -- one Moroccan and an Algerian -- in the town of L'Hospitalet de Llobregat north of Barcelona, the Spanish news agency EFE reported.
Iran has reinstated visa requirements for Arabs from Gulf nations to keep out al-Qaida members, the official Iranian news agency said Saturday. The United States has said Iran may be seeking to destabilize the newly installed U.N.-backed administration in Kabul.
At the Marine base, Rounsaville, and his comrades sang and joked as they huddled in a freezing, bomb-shattered building waiting for a flight back to the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.
For many of the Marines leaving Kandahar, the transfer of the base marked the end of an operation that began in November when they established a forward base in the desert south of Kandahar as the Taliban were beginning to collapse under relentless U.S. bombing in support of opposition northern alliance ground forces.
The Marines abandoned their desert base and took over Kandahar Airport after the Taliban handed over control of the city to opposition forces, marking the end of the Islamic militia's five-year rule.
Some Marines were staying behind to take part in other possible missions as the United States presses the search for Osama bin Laden and other renegades from al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Rounsaville said Afghanistan was "far from anything I could have ever imagined. I'm from Mississippi, and there ain't a lot of action there. ... I got to do some real stuff, so I could feel a little proud of myself. Something to tell the kids about, the family."
The military is holding several hundred Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners at the Kandahar base and has sent more than a hundred others to longer-term detention at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Saudi Arabia has asked that any of its citizens captured in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban or al-Qaida be repatriated -- a demand Karzai discussed with Prince Abdullah in the Saudi capital on Saturday, diplomats said.
They also discusses Saudi recognition of Karzai's government, which was inaugurated in December to run Afghanistan for six months under a U.N.-brokered deal. Saudi Arabia was the only nations to recognize the Taliban regime.