KABUL, Afghanistan – Three top leaders from Afghanistan's overthrown Taliban militia were arrested by local authorities in the city of Kandahar, but were later released, a spokesman for Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha told Reuters late Tuesday.
Khalid Pashtoon said that, although they were released, the three were not allowed to move about freely, adding that anyone who surrendered would be eligible for an amnesty, except for Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"Among those who surrendered were former Minister of Defense Mullah Ubai Dullah, Minister of Justice Mullah Turabi and Minister of Mines and Industry Mullah Saadudin," Pashtoon told Reuters.
A senior U.S. military official told the news service that he expected them to be handed over to the United States.
Earlier Tuesday, Gen. Richard Myers said the U.S. would want custody of any leaders of such former prominence. "Obviously individuals of that stature in the Taliban leadership are of great interest to the United States, and we would expect them to be turned over," said Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A high-ranking security official for Agha, commander Sadozai, said early in the day that the top Taliban officials sent a messenger to Kandahar three or four days ago saying they wanted to discuss surrendering.
Agha called a tribal council meeting to discuss the offer with other Afghan leaders, said Sadozai, who uses one name only.
At the Pentagon, Myers said U.S. forces operating in the Khost region of eastern Afghanistan had captured 14 Al Qaeda fighters without resistance, including two thought to be senior figures. The two, whom Myers did not identify, were taken to the Marine base at Kandahar airport for interrogation, along with cell phones and laptops found with them.
In the southern city of Kandahar, a heavily armed Al Qaeda fighter blew himself up rather than be captured as he tried to escape from a hospital where he and six comrades had taken over a ward, refusing to surrender to the city's new rulers.
The fighter, identified as Mohammad Rasool, jumped from the second-story window at Mir Wais Hospital, found himself surrounded by guards and detonated a grenade, killing himself. The Al Qaeda fighters in the hospital have held off guards for weeks by threatening to kill themselves if approached.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. war effort, told The Associated Press at his headquarters in Florida that the weeks-long search through the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan had failed to turn up Usama bin Laden, blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The search would be ending in the next day or so with no clue to bin Laden's whereabouts, Franks said. U.S. troops could begin pursuing bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, though there was no hard proof the Saudi exile was there, he said.
Myers said U.S. troops would not act "unilaterally" on Pakistani soil, and Islamabad said Tuesday it needed no help to catch Al Qaeda members. "We have made all arrangements that those who sneak into Pakistan are arrested," said Mohammed Aziz Khan, a Pakistani government spokesman.
Allowing troops on Pakistani soil could be sensitive for many Pakistanis and other countries concerned about the spread of U.S. military operations.
Franks said that in the next few days, the U.S. military would gain custody of one or two Taliban or Al Qaeda figures of great interest to the United States. He would not elaborate.
As part of the hunt for remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda members, U.S. warplanes have been striking a "hotbed" of terrorist support at the Al Qaeda base at Zawar Kili near Khost, where bin Laden's followers have been emerging, possibly from the Tora Bora area.
Pakistan has said its troops arrested 23 foreign fighters trying to cross from Afghanistan over the weekend. At least 350 Al Qaeda members, including more then 300 Arab nationals, have been arrested in Pakistan after crossing the border.
On Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a delegation of U.S. senators made visits under extremely tight security to Bagram Air Base near Kabul. They met soldiers from their countries and the leader of Afghanistan's new interim administration, Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.
Blair and the senators vowed not to turn their backs on Afghanistan. "On our part it is very critical that we remain here," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. "We're going to be here a lot longer than the Taliban."
The exiled former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zaher Shah, who is to play a symbolic role in creating a new, longer-term government, intends to return to his homeland before the end of March, a top aide said in Rome.
Zaher Shah, who was ousted in 1973, will convene a grand national assembly, or loya jirga, on June 22. to craft a new government. "His majesty has decided to go before the Afghan new year, which is March 25," the aide, Zalmai Rassoul said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said thousands of refugees who returned home to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran are turning back because there is no food.
"Most of the villages they are coming back to are in ruins," said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In other developments:
— Canada announced Monday that 750 military personnel will join U.S. forces trying to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan. They should begin arriving in about 10 days.
— A contingent of 70 German troops and 32 Dutch soldiers set off Tuesday to join the British-led international stabilization force in Kabul, which is expected to reach a total of 4,500 troops.
— Pakistan said it will establish diplomatic relations with Afghanistan's new interim government by opening an embassy and a consulate next week. Pakistan was the last country to maintain contacts with the Taliban.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.