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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 02:38 GMT
Pakistan rounds up al-Qaeda militants
Pakistani border police are on high alert
Pakistani security forces have captured hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters who fled across the border from Afghanistan, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said.

Speaking at a Pentagon briefing, Mr Rumsfeld said US and Pakistani officials would interrogate the detainees in what he said "should be a treasure trove" of intelligence leads.

It would be a mistake to say al-Qaeda is finished in Afghanistan at this stage

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Mr Rumsfeld, who had returned from a Nato meeting in Brussels, told reporters the US was also expanding a detention centre at Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan for captured members of the al-Qaeda network.

As he spoke, Pakistani security forces were searching for a group of al-Qaeda fighters who escaped from a prison van after a clash that left 11 people dead.

The Pakistani authorities said about 100 prisoners were being taken in a convoy of vans to the town of Peshawar when the trouble started.

In other developments:

  • Donald Rumsfeld denies he told Nato members the US was planning to target Somalia in the next stage of its war on terror
  • The US defence secretary dismisses reports the US is involved in a search by Yemeni Government forces for suspects linked to al-Qaeda
  • The first person to be formally accused in connection with the 11 September attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, is remanded in custody after appearing in court in Virginia
  • FBI agents interrogate alleged al-Qaeda members at a detention centre at Kandahar airport
  • Pashtun forces in Kandahar step up their search for the Taleban spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar

The border incident happened near the town of Sadda in the semi-autonomous Kurram tribal agency, about 300 kilometres west of Peshawar.

A group of al-Qaeda prisoners - said to be Arabs - overpowered their guards and seized weapons, triggering a gun battle in which five soldiers and six of the prisoners were killed.

Pakistani officials said the driver of one of the vans was shot in the struggle and the vehicle overturned.

In the confusion, about 40 prisoners managed to escape - but some have already been recaptured.

The men were captured on Tuesday while trying to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

The BBC's Farhan Bokhari, reporting from Lahore, says this is the bloodiest clash between Pakistani security forces and al-Qaeda members since the US-led campaign against Osama Bin Laden and his followers began.

Pakistan in pursuit

Mr Rumsfeld praised the Pakistani army's role, saying it was "doing a good job" in guarding the border with Afghanistan.

Anti-Taleban forces guard a captured cave in the Tora Bora area

Hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters are believed to have crossed into Pakistan after their camps and hideouts in the Tora Bora region of the White Mountain range were targeted in heavy US bombing raids and ground attacks by Afghan forces.

Mr Rumsfeld said air bombardments in Afghanistan had now virtually ceased.

However, he warned that despite the allies recent successes, Osama Bin Laden - the main suspect behind the attacks on America - and the al-Qaeda network remained dangerous.

"It has businesses across the globe. It has sleepers in various countries. It has cells. It has money. It has communication capability.

"And it has, I'm going to guess, one or two handfuls of people who are perfectly capable of continuing to operate that network," he added.

The BBC's Behroz Khan
"The entire area is closed"
See also:

19 Dec 01 | South Asia
FBI probes prisoners for clues
14 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's tribal frontiers
18 Dec 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden's disappearing act
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