KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, was in U.S. custody Sunday aboard a Navy ship in the Arabian Sea, an American military official said.
U.S. officials hope Zaeef, one of the highest-ranking Taliban members taken captive since the U.S.-led coalition launched its war to crush the militia and its al-Qaida allies, will provide useful intelligence for the ongoing campaign.
Zaeef was the main mouthpiece for the Taliban as the United States prepared and launched its onslaught in Afghanistan last fall. During the height of the bombing campaign, he held daily news conferences at his embassy in Islamabad to defend the Taliban.
He was eventually shut down by Pakistan's government.
U.S. Marine Lt. James Jarvis told a news briefing at the Marine-controlled Kandahar airport that Zaeef was being held on a ship in the Arabian Sea. He is one of the first prisoners known to be taken directly to a U.S. ship rather than to a prison camp in Kandahar first.
Jarvis also said 25 new prisoners arrived Saturday night in Kandahar from Pakistan, where they were intercepted trying to flee, bringing the total to 300 at a specially constructed detention facility.
One prisoner at the facility is Ibn Al-Shayk al-Libi, the suspected chief of at least some of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. Though the exact number of training camps is not known, former Taliban members, who have asked not to be identified, have said there were camps in all of Afghanistan's 31 provinces.
U.S. officials hope high-ranking Taliban and al-Qaida members will prove valuable for gathering information on the organizations.
"The big question, of course, is: Will they talk?" former CIA terrorism analyst Stan Beddington said Saturday. "If they are able to talk, I have no doubt whatsoever they will give a lot of information, particularly in the search for bin Laden."
Jarvis said the prisoners at the airport are being interrogated for information on al-Qaida in the area.
Zaeef was arrested Thursday by Pakistani authorities and taken to the border town of Peshawar and questioned. Pakistan said he was deported Saturday to Afghanistan, but refused to say whether he had been turned over to Afghan or American authorities.
Pakistan, one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan after they took control in 1996, said Zaeef lost his diplomatic immunity when Taliban rule collapsed under the pressure of the U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan military campaign and the interim administration of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai came to power.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees rejected Zaeef's application for refugee status. Pakistan has said his wife and six children can remain in the country for a while.