Pentagon official dismisses claim that they were in custody

Jan. 9 — In what would be a setback for the U.S. initiative to wipe out terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan, some Taliban officials were reportedly freed this week after cutting deals with officials of Afghanistan’s new government. But a senior Pentagon official Wednesday questioned the veracity of the claims that senior Taliban officials were ever in custody, the Wall Street Journal reported on its Web site.

“I DON’T HAVE a whit of confidence that there was any aspect of that story that was ever true,” the Journal quoted the unnamed Pentagon official as saying. “I don’t think anybody surrendered; I don’t think anybody had custody of anybody; so I don’t think anybody was released by anybody.”

Among those reportedly released — apparently before the United States could question them — were two senior ministers from the fundamentalist, and often harsh, Islamic regime.

Officials in Kandahar said that among the men let go was Nooruddin Turabi — the one-eyed, one-legged justice minister responsible for some of the Taliban’s most repressive edicts, particularly those affecting women.

He also established the feared religious police, who roamed the streets beating women they considered not to be properly covered, as well as men who trimmed their beards or cut their hair in violation of Turabi’s interpretation of Islam.

The Kandahar officials initially said the former regime’s defense minister had also been arrested and freed. But Yousaf Pashtoon, an aide to the Kandahar governor, said Wednesday that the arrested man was actually a former Taliban military commander with the same name.

Pashtoon said the men were released under a general amnesty agreement because they had voluntarily surrendered and had not been charged with a specific crime. He stressed that the amnesty agreement under which they were released would not apply to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, if he were captured.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said the interim Afghan government was investigating whether or not the releases were appropriate.

U.S. officials expressed disappointment at the ministers’ release.

“I’m sure we’ll be looking into this matter further,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Wednesday. “These people ought to be in custody ... on the basis of their support for al-Qaida and the terrorists that have operated in Afghanistan.”

Jalal Khan, a close associate of Kandahar provincial Gov. Gul Agha, said the men were freed in part because they had satisfied officials in the Kandahar government that they recognized the legitimacy of the new interim administration.

“They will not be handed over to America,” Khan said in an interview with the Saudi-based newspaper Arab News. “However, they will not participate in politics.”

Pentagon officials said they did not know why Agha and his subordinates would concoct a story such as that of the detained-and-then-released Taliban officials, the Journal reported.
Pashtoon said Tuesday that a former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Haqani, had also surrendered, but he did not say whether he, too, had been freed. An Afghan tribal commander said, meanwhile, that the head of the hard-line militia’s information department and one of its senior spokesmen, Abdul Hayee Motmain, had been detained and handed over to U.S. forces.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan had 368 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in custody, the Pentagon said Wednesday. Some are expected to be flown this week to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the military is preparing a maximum-security detention facility.

Prime Minister Hamid Karzai ordered all armed men to leave Kabul’s streets and return to their barracks within three days or be put in jail, Interior Minister Younus Qanooni said Wednesday.