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AFGHANISTAN Troops search for 4 escapees



Published: Thu, July 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Four suspected Al-Qaida members escaped from the Bagram air base.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Four Al-Qaida suspects who escaped from a U.S.-controlled air base changed out of their orange prison jumpsuits before making their getaway from the heavily guarded compound, a U.S. military spokesman said Wednesday.

After three days of searching, U.S. and Afghan forces late Wednesday still had not found the prisoners from Syria, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia who were reported missing from the Bagram air base north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

"I'm hoping beyond hope that we find those four guys, but right now I can only report that the search is ongoing," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara.

There were no known witnesses to the early Monday breakout, he said. However, it seems the prisoners took off their orange jumpsuit uniforms and put on something less conspicuous before leaving the detention center, O'Hara said. U.S. officials did not make clear where the men had found a change of clothes or whether they had received outside help in their escape, the first from the facility.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, is investigating the breakout from the former Soviet air base that now serves as headquarters for the more than 16,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Bagram's detention center holds more than 450 inmates under strict security and secrecy. They include suspected members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida network and its allies in the Taliban militia.

Security precautions

Afghan workers who have passed through the detention center's outermost guard posts say the facility's floors are thick concrete, which would make tunneling difficult. The outer doors have combination locks.

A prisoner who got out of a cell, avoided guards and opened the combination locks would then have to maneuver through numerous checkpoints and find a way past the base walls, which are under 24-hour watch by sentries.

The improbability of the four prisoners pulling off that feat on their own has left some Afghans convinced that the men had inside help from someone familiar with base security.

"The specifics about how they got out, and who helped them -- and who didn't help them -- that's what the investigation will determine," O'Hara said.

On Tuesday, U.S. troops backed by helicopters were focusing their search on the vineyards, thickets and dry scrub of the Shomali plain that surrounds the Bagram air base. O'Hara refused to say Wednesday whether the search area had been expanded, or whether there were any solid leads to follow.

Military operations

Militants kept up the pressure elsewhere in Afghanistan with attacks that included a rocket assault on the U.S. airfield at Kandahar, the Taliban's former spiritual capital in southeastern Afghanistan.

Two civilian employees of the U.S. logistics contractor KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root, were injured when four rockets struck the airfield around 4 a.m. Monday, the U.S. military said in a statement Wednesday.

The wounded, who were not identified by name or nationality, were flown to Germany for treatment and are in stable condition, the statement said. The attackers escaped.

U.S. and Afghan troops had better success during an operation in the Zabol province, where 17 guerrillas were killed Tuesday on the second day of fighting south of the village of Dai Chopan, the U.S. military said. Six others were captured.

After the firefight, soldiers found weapons inside a mosque that included a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, 14 rocket-propelled grenades and 100 machine-gun ammunition belts, the military said.




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