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US Commander:  Search Continues for al-Qaida Terrorists - 2002-02-07

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan says his troops, in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency, are working hard to track down fugitive al-Qaida terrorists. But General Tommy Franks acknowledges there is still a lot of work to do.

General Franks made no mention of a reported missile attack by an unmanned CIA operated drone aircraft that may have killed senior al-Qaida terrorists near the Pakistan border.

But in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the General acknowledges there are still many terrorists at large, posing a continuing danger. "This is dangerous. These people are committed," he said. "There are still a great many of them and we have an awful lot of work to do."

U.S. media reports say a Predator drone, operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, launched a "Hellfire" missile Monday near the Zawar Khili cave complex, an al-Qaida facility bombed extensively by American forces.

Neither the CIA nor the Pentagon have commented on the incident.

But General Franks, discussing military operations in Afghanistan, hints elite U.S. and foreign commandos may be heading into the remote area to check out the results of the missile attack. He says the hunt for fugitive al-Qaida is ongoing.

"We have very highly trained and capable special operating forces, as a matter of fact this morning from nine different countries, inside Afghanistan," he said. "They are conducting strategic reconnaissance today in some places. They may well conduct direct action missions within the next 24 hours."

General Franks was responding to criticism from Republican Senator Jim Bunning, perhaps the only discordant note from an otherwise supportive Congressional panel. "But I am not pleased, and I do not think any Americans are pleased, that we have not done a better job on al-Qaida," Senator said.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is among the terrorists still believed to be at large. Taleban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar also remains unaccounted for.

General Franks confirms U.S. forces have released 27 detainees seized in a controversial raid on a village north of Kandahar, after determining they were not al-Qaida or Taleban. But he says the men have not been freed, but rather turned over to Afghan authorities.

He says the incident in which they were detained two weeks ago remains under investigation.

At least 15 people were killed in the same raid on what U.S. officials say was a suspected terrorist munitions depot. Villagers claim the U.S. attack was a mistake and struck a storage facility for weapons acquired in a disarmament drive by supporters of Afghanistan's new interim government.