Pool Report: Marines Prepare Prison Camp

This is a dispatch from the Afghanistan reporters' "pool," a Pentagon-authorized system that allows a single journalist to file for all accredited news organizations.

CAMP RHINO, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines are preparing a prison camp at Kandahar airport for up to 300 Al Qaeda fighters who might surrender or be captured in the Tora Bora mountains, an officer said Saturday.

"Our primary focus is on receiving prisoners from Tora Bora and building a site for them," at the airport now occupied by the Marines, the officer said.

He expected that "between 100 and 300 prisoners" could be taken in the eastern mountains.

A site had already been marked out at the airport, which hundreds of Marines occupied Friday to make it safe for military and eventual civilian use.

They might surrender or be captured, he said.

An Afghan militia commander in the Tora Bora region, Said Mohammad Palawan, said some 300 Al Qaeda fighters who promised to surrender on Saturday had failed to give themselves up by four hours after the set time.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said around 50 Al Qaeda fighters surrendered as U.S. and Afghan forces advanced in fierce cave battles in the Tora Bora area, south of the eastern city of Jalalabad.

The U.S. officer who is involved in operations planning at Camp Rhino dismissed speculation that most of Usama bin Laden's followers would fight to the death.

It was human nature to try to avoid death, he said, but warned that the prisoners would be dangerous.

The officer highlighted an uprising by prisoners in Mazar-i-Sharif last month that was bloodily suppressed by the Northern Alliance and US warplanes.

"These are hardcore people," he said. "If they have a chance to overwhelm and kill a guard, they will try to do that, even if it means their own death."

The Al Qaeda will not behave like the thousands of generally "docile" Iraqi troops taken prisoner after the 1991 Gulf War, he said.

The officer said it was important to detain as many as possible of the Al Qaeda fighters. "These are bad guys who are against all of us."

The officer said Camp Rhino, the forward operating base in the desert south of Kandahar which the Marines seized on November 25, would be phased out early next year when Kandahar airport becomes a fully operational base. He expected the Army to take over there from the Marines.

He also said the Marines had stopped "interdiction" operations they had carried out for more than a week and turned the job over to the anti-Taliban forces who took Kandahar on December 7.

Interdiction means stopping Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters trying to flee the Kandahar area. "We've not come here to get involved in the policing business," said the officer.

It is widely believed there are still high-level Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives still in the Kandahar area, he said.

"There are a number of small pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda that we don't have control of," nor does Gul Agha, the new Kandahar province governor and Hamid Karzai, the new leader of Afghanistan, he added.