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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 16:53 GMT
US holds thousands in Afghanistan
Taleban prisoners in northern Afghanistan
Screening the prisoners is a long process
An estimated 7,000 members of the Taleban and the al-Qaeda terror network are being held in Afghanistan, a spokesman for the US-led coalition has said.

It is the first time that the number of detainees has been announced since the beginning of the military campaign that toppled the Taleban regime.

Taleban prisoners in northern Afghanistan
Not all prisoners are terrorists, the US says
The prisoners - who are being screened to ascertain their degree of involvement in the Taleban and al-Qaeda - are being guarded by US forces and anti-Taleban fighters.

The announcement comes as the interim Afghan administration prepares to take power and a British-led stabilisation force begins patrolling the capital, Kabul.

No details were available on where the prisoners were being held, or how many senior officials they may include.

However, correspondents say some are being held at the US Marines base at Kandahar airport, where a detention camp has been hastily constructed in recent days.

"The situation changes almost by the hour, but I believe the latest number of prisoners to be around 7,000 in total," Kenton Keith, a former US ambassador to Qatar, told a news conference in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

Coalition forces were screening the detainees to see which of them were of interest for prosecution outside Afghanistan, he said.

Interrogators would have to discover "if they are people with blood on their hands".

Taleban prisoner in northern Afghanistan
Questions have been raised over the prisoners' treatment
Many of the prisoners were captured during the fall of the northern town of Kunduz last month.

Northern Alliance forces led by warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum took control of the city after a long siege.

Although General Dostum said the prisoners' rights would be respected, there were reports of Taleban prisoners being beaten and shot dead in the marketplace.

Later, several hundred prisoners who surrendered in Kunduz died after staging a revolt in a fort near Mazar-e-Sharif.

There has also been concern expressed about detainees dying in overcrowded conditions while being taken to prison.

The International Red Cross began an investigation earlier this month into reports that dozens of Taleban soldiers suffocated while being held in transport containers.

In neighbouring Pakistan, more than 200 foreign fighters, most of them Arabs, are said to be in custody.

Some are being interrogated on the whereabouts al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, the man accused of masterminding the 11 September terror attacks on the US who was being harboured by the Taleban.

See also:

20 Dec 01 | South Asia
Pakistan holds senior Taleban official
12 Dec 01 | South Asia
Red Cross probes Taleban deaths
01 Dec 01 | South Asia
Calls mount for Afghan fort inquiry
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