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Anti-Terrorism Coalition Holding 7,000 Taleban, al-Qaida Members - 2001-12-21

The U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition said it is holding 7,000 Taleban and Al-Qaida members in custody in Afghanistan.

An American spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Kenton Keith told reporters that the figure of 7,000 prisoners is an estimate. "As far as numbers are concerned the situation changes almost hourly, but I believe that the current estimate for the number of prisoners being held in Afghanistan is around 7,000," said the spokesman.

Mr. Keith said he could not say how many detainees are Taleban and how many from al-Qaida, because the process of identifying prisoners is continuing. "What is involved here is a process that involves the screening of the people who have been taken to determine what their role has been, to determine if they have committed the kinds of crimes that make them of particular interest to members of the coalition. The process of screening is ongoing; justice is the goal," he said.

Mr. Keith provided no details of where the detainees are being held or how many top officials they may include.

Meanwhile, British Marines have arrived in the Afghan capital, as the first contingent of a multi-national peace-keeping force, authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Fifty-three British Royal Marines landed at Bagram air base north of Kabul on Thursday. Mr. Keith said the force is expected to grow up to 5,000, from several countries. "[The Marines] have a limited role. They are there basically to provide basic support to the new government until the [International Security Force] can be deployed which will be within the next week," he said.

U.S. special forces and Afghan militiamen are still searching the mountain caves and tunnels at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan for surviving Al-Qaida and Taleban fighters.

U.S. spokesman Keith said the coalition believes Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden are still inside Afghanistan. "We have no reasons to think that either Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden are outside Afghanistan. We have no credible information that they are any place outside Afghanistan," said Mr. Keith.

The United States has posted a $25 million reward for the capture of Osama Bin Laden and a reward of $10 million for Taleban leader Mullah Omar. According to some reports the Taleban leader is located somewhere near his former stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.