WASHINGTON – The surrendering of the Taliban's foreign minister to authorities in Afghanistan Friday may provide the U.S. with one of its greatest intelligence sources thus far in the war on terror.
Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil is the highest-ranking Taliban official known to be in custody, and thus could help in the search for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other chiefs of the radical Islamic militia.
He turned himself in Friday, the same day U.S. troops traveled to a remote site in eastern Afghanistan to determine whether top Al Qaeda figures had been killed in a missile attack.
Muttawakil surrendered to Afghan officials in the southern city of Kandahar, U.S. defense officials said. The Kandahar authorities transferred Muttawakil to the U.S. military base at the city's airport, where he was being held.
"This is a moment that we have been waiting for — to make sure that these individuals face trial, either in Afghanistan or outside Afghanistan, for their actions and deeds in the past," Omar Samad, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said in an interview Saturday.
"It's about time that a known Taliban figure who held a position of authority is turning himself in and hopefully others will be caught later."
U.S. authorities were questioning Muttawakil, looking to gather intelligence, officials said.
Muttawakil was considered one of the Taliban's moderate figures. In the weeks after Sept. 11, his name was mentioned as someone who might be acceptable to Afghanistan's majority Pashtuns to provide an alternative leadership to the Taliban.
There were reports that he and Mohammed Omar had argued about the presence of Usama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Some reports said Muttawakil had been jailed in the last months of Taliban rule for trying to press for bin Laden to be handed over.
But he stuck with the Taliban's hard line in public, challenging the United States and Britain in October to send in ground troops. "Let them come here in the ground," he said. "We will fight and let's see who will win."
Officials are hoping that Muttawakil's surrender could prompt other Taliban leaders to give up as well.
Before Muttawakil turned himself in, the highest-ranking Taliban official in custody was the former army chief of staff, Mullah Fazel Mazloom. He is among the 186 prisoners being held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
More than 50 U.S. soldiers arrived at a remote spot in eastern Afghanistan's mountains Friday to determine who was killed in a CIA missile attack Monday, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A remote-controlled Predator spy plane fired at "some individuals," but officials do not know for sure if they were Al Qaeda members, Myers said. The people were gathered near a truck in the area of Zawar Kili, a former Al Qaeda stronghold near the border with Pakistan, he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld discounted speculation that bin Laden might have been among those killed.
"We just simply have no idea," he said.
Neither Rumsfeld nor Myers offered much detail on the circumstances of the attack, which other officials said involved the use of at least one Hellfire air-to-ground missile launched from the Predator.
Authorities have questioned about 105 of the 186 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Rumsfeld said. The interrogations will continue in hope of gleaning information that could pre-empt any future attacks by Al Qaeda terrorists.
Rumsfeld complained of "isolated pockets of international hyperventilation" over U.S. handling of the prisoners. He referred to critics who reacted strongly to an official Defense Department photograph of newly arrived prisoners kneeling on the ground and wearing earmuffs and blacked-out goggles.
"The newspaper headlines that yelled, 'Torture! What's next? Electrodes?' and all of this rubbish (were) so inexcusable that it does make one wonder why we put out any photographs, if that's the way they're going to be treated, so irresponsibly," he said.
Rumsfeld added that he was not considering any new restrictions on news coverage of the detention camp.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.