WASHINGTON – U.S. forces will continue striking select targets in Afghanistan and are preparing to bring dozens of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners to an American military base in Cuba, officials said on Thursday.
The American base at Guantanamo Bay is "least worst place" to hold the detainees, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, suggesting there are few other options for imprisoning the men once they are in U.S. custody.
Rumsfeld said it could take weeks to prepare the site, where U.S. interrogators will continue pressing their prisoners for more information on the whereabouts of key Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, most of whom are still missing and unaccounted for.
Some 45 prisoners are in U.S. custody and are being questioned about the whereabouts of alleged terrorist Usama bin Laden, and to determine if they should be brought to trial. A number of those prisoners may face U.S. military tribunals, though Rumsfeld said the military has made no plans to hold military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay base.
President Bush has authorized military tribunals to try terrorist suspects from other countries, but defense officials said Thursday Rumsfeld has not decided how, where or even if those tribunals would take place.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported Thursday that a Bush administration draft of rules for a U.S. military tribunal require a unanimous vote of a tribunal's members to impose a death sentence on a foreign terror suspect.
The draft restates Bush's executive order in allowing conviction by two-thirds vote of the panel of military officers, according to the Post and Times.
In addition, the draft regulations stipulate that a defendant is presumed innocent and that the military panel may find guilt only after presentation of proof beyond reasonable doubt. That is the same test applied in U.S. civilian courts.
U.S. officials said they would also continue to strike at Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Officials in Washington told Fox News on Thursday that the latest strike, which took place on Wednesday, may have killed a top Taliban intelligence official. Reuters has reported, however, that a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry has demanded that the U.S. halt bombing very soon.
Meanwhile, 20 suspected Al Qaeda fighters who fled the area of eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden may have been hiding were transferred Thursday to a U.S. Marine detention center in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Marines were already holding 17 prisoners there and another eight, including the American John Walker Lindh, were being held on the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
As he has done repeatedly, Rumsfeld dodged questions about the whereabouts of bin Laden. "He is either in Afghanistan, or some other country or dead," the secretary said.
He also said he did not know of any U.S. intelligence reports since mid-December that would indicate bin Laden was alive.
He said he had not seen a videotape of bin Laden that was released Thursday but apparently made at least a couple weeks ago. Though he glanced at an excerpt as it flashed across a television, Rumsfeld said he was leaving it to intelligence officials to analyze.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Guantanamo, controlled by America since 1903, said the base had received a warning order to prepare for the arrival of prisoners from Afghanistan.
Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans at the base said Guantanamo has detention facilities for about 100 people, dating from the mid-1990s when the base was used to house thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said bin Laden is believed to be in a border area of Pakistan with friends of a Pakistani religious party leader. A party spokesman said the report was baseless, and a Defense Department official said the United States does not have information to prove or disprove it.
U.S. warplanes struck a Taliban leadership compound southwest of Kandahar Wednesday night, Pentagon officials said. Analysis from the strike by an AC-130 gunship and B-52 bombers found no damage to civilian areas, officials said.
The new prisoners at the Marine base in Kandahar were captured in Pakistan, where dozens of Al Qaeda members fled amid heavy fighting in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region earlier this month. The prisoners could have useful information in the hunt for bin Laden and the rest of the anti-terrorism campaign, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.
"We want to talk to them pretty thoroughly," Clarke said, adding that the interrogations would be performed by "a variety of U.S. officials, including military."
The Defense Department does not have a copy of a newly aired videotape of bin Laden, Clarke said. The tape does not offer any obvious clues to bin Laden's whereabouts — or even whether he is alive or dead.
The Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Abeel, said bin Laden is believed to be in Pakistan with associates of Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party. Abeel did not divulge the source of his information.
The party, which is sympathetic to Afghanistan's deposed Taliban militia, is supported in parts of Pakistan's North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, both of which border Afghanistan.
Riaz Durrani, central information secretary for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, dismissed the report. "We support the Taliban, but never had any connection with Usama bin Laden," he said. "Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman is under detention for the last three months. How can he or his party do this?"
In excerpts from the tape aired on the Arabic TV network al-Jazeera Wednesday, bin Laden said he was speaking three months after the Sept. 11 attacks and two months after the United States started striking Afghanistan, which was Oct. 7. He also mentioned a Nov. 16 U.S. airstrike in Khost, Afghanistan, as having occurred several days before.
Bin Laden hails the Sept. 11 hijackings as a "blessed attack against the international infidels."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed the tape. "This is nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda we've heard before." He and Clarke said they did not know whether government analysts had determined when the tape was made.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.