KABUL, Afghanistan – As the interim Afghan government continued to take shape in Kabul, an agreement was finalized Sunday regarding the international peacekeepers who plan to spend the next several months protecting the new administration.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops on Saturday transferred suspected Al Qaeda prisoners in northern Afghanistan to a special base in Kandahar where they hoped to gain valuable intelligence to help win the war on terrorism.
On the peacekeeping agreement, meant to lay down the foundation for a more stable country, Afghan interim foreign minister Abdullah, who uses only one name, said the infighting over the size and nature of the foreign police force was over.
"Very soon, we will be able to see multinational forces," he told a news conference.
But Abdullah refused to provide details about the agreement, which was expected to be signed later Sunday by the government and the peacekeepers. He said only that the foreign troops will work alongside the Afghans on security and will operate under regulations that permit self-defense.
Besides settling on how the peacekeepers will operate, Abdullah said the U.S. airstrikes should continue "as long as there are terrorist cells in Afghanistan."
Abdullah also said Usama bin Laden may still be in the country, another incentive for foreign help amid the disarray of the Taliban militia's aftermath. U.S. forces have been scouring Afghanistan's rugged terrain for the fugitive terrorism suspect.
The first batch of peacekeepers — a contingent of British troops — arrived before the Dec. 22 inauguration of the six-month interim administration. But a deal governing the overall size of the force had bogged down over the numbers of foreign troops, their duties and other details.
The interim administration had been divided over the time the peacekeepers would remain in the country, with the interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai saying six months minimum and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim saying six months maximum.
Officials also argued over how many peacekeepers there would be and what they would be called on to do. Some within the interim Cabinet called for as many as 5,000 peacekeepers with a very active role. Fahim wanted only 1,000 international troops with a low profile.
The initial deployment of peacekeepers would be in Kabul, Abdullah said. But the interim government, he said, would welcome peacekeepers in other cities.
One sticking point, though, could be the continued presence of armed Afghan fighters in the capital. Under an agreement reached in Germany that paved the way for the government to take office, they are to be located only outside Kabul.
Abdullah said that "Afghan soldiers will be based in military bases in and around Kabul."
Without the details of the agreement, it was not clear what concessions were made and by whom. Abdullah said only that some discussions took longer "than what was expected."
Abdullah also said the U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network should continue "as long as terrorist cells are in Afghanistan — as long as the objectives of the campaign against terrorism are not achieved fully."
It was not certain whether Abdullah's opinion on the bombing was the official view of the interim government, however. Some other officials have said the bombing campaign should be halted to avoid more civilian casualties.
It was also unclear exactly how much the bombing and ground-based military maneuvers had achieved in the war on terrorism. Abdullah said some members of the Taliban leadership were in custody, but "quite a few have disguised themselves and gone elsewhere."
Speculation about bin Laden's whereabouts has been rampant. Fahim said Saturday that bin Laden was believed to have slipped into Pakistan, but Abdullah disagreed.
"We do not have the exactly clear information about Usama," Abdullah said, "but he might be inside Afghanistan."
Intelligence about bin Laden's location was likely what the U.S. military had in mind when it transferred suspected Al Qaeda prisoners to a staging area in Kandahar.
The suspected followers of terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden come from 14 nations, but were all being held in an overcrowded prison in Shibergan before they were moved, military officials said.
"We're taking them out of here, and taking them down to Kandahar as quickly as we can," Maj. Joseph Fenty, commander of the forces conducting the operation, said. "We're primarily looking at detainees that we can use for collecting intelligence."
Starting Friday, American troops in bulletproof vests and armed with assault rifles began picking out those captives who would be granted new temporary homes in Kandahar. On Saturday afternoon, a convoy of about six vehicles, including two closed trucks, emerged from the prison and headed toward the nearby airport.
A task force from the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., transferred 76 detainees from Shibergan to Kandahar this weekend, division officials said.
Earlier, 63 suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda members arrived at Kandahar airport, bringing the total of detainees at the Marine base's makeshift holding facility there to 124, a Marine spokesman said. Those new arrivals, separate from the Shibergan prisoners, came from undisclosed locations across the country.
The number of inmates at Kandahar — which has room for at least 250 — rose steadily last week, and the Pentagon expected dozens more in coming days, a Washington defense official said on condition of anonymity. American officials had said an undisclosed number of prisoners would be sent to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Abudullah said he would like to see a war-crimes tribunal set up inside Afghanistan to investigate abuses committed under the Taliban's repressive five-year regime. But it wouldn't be easy, he said.
"It will take years and years," Abdullah said. "It's not a matter of days to draw up a list of war criminals."
The prisoners recently moved to Kandahar could be candidates for a U.S. military tribunal, which President Bush has authorized to judge and sentence terrorists who are not American citizens.
Abdullah said the tribunal's mandate should not extend to the days before the Taliban took power. Many members of the new government were involved in the ill-fated administration that ruled Afghanistan from 1992-96, when factional fighting flattened entire neighborhoods and left an estimated 50,000 people dead.
In other Afghanistan-related developments:
• Pakistan police seized arms and ammunition in an abandoned house in the border city of Quetta that were believed to have been smuggled from Afghanistan for possible terrorism, local police chief Shoaib Suddle said. The cache — 124 machine guns, 248 rifles, 342 mortar bombs and 30,000 rounds of ammunition — was the largest ever in Pakistan. Two suspects were arrested.
• The Pentagon confirmed a U.S. military strike in Afghanistan early Saturday on a "building used by the Taliban." The Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based news agency, reported the strike occurred in Shekhan, a village in the eastern province of Paktia, and said Sunday that at least 15 civilians were killed. It quoted witnesses saying there was no sign of Al Qaeda or Taliban members in the area.
• Pakistani intelligence officers and FBI agents were interrogating more than 200 suspected members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.
• Pakistan's military-led government has frozen the accounts of Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood and Abdul Majid, two nuclear scientists suspected of links with bin Laden, a central bank spokesman said Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.