WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Anti-Taliban forces captured al Qaida prisoners in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan Friday and they will be handed over to the United States and moved either to the airport near Kandahar, Camp Rhino south of Kandahar or out to a U.S. ship for detention, said Gen Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan.
"We'll screen each one of these detainees and determine which ones are interesting to us, and then we'll do a variety of things with them, depending on how interesting we find them," he said.
"We have not yet taken any of these prisoners from the opposition leaders. And when we do take prisoners from them, or detainees from them, we'll either keep them inside Afghanistan ... or we'll take them to sea for interrogation and exploitation," Franks told Pentagon reporters via videoconference from Tampa.
In addition to the first acknowledged al Qaida prisoners of the war, the fierce battle raging in Tora Bora is also yielding reams of intelligence as caves are abandoned by al Qaida.
"(W)e have removed documents and other sort of evidentiary matters from this complex," Franks said. "I know we have taken a lot of documents."
Franks said it could take months to methodically capture and sort through the prisoners to determine who the United States wants to keep, and the military will do so patiently.
"It's going to take months to go through the detainees that we have, to assure ourselves that, in fact, we have done what our president asked us to do and what the world asked this coalition to do, and that is to destroy this network inside Afghanistan. So we're not in a hurry to do that," he said.
Franks called the approach "strategic patience."
"And so patience and calm" characterizes the plan in Afghanistan, he said. "One thing we know for sure is, as long as we have pockets of Taliban resisting or pockets of al Qaida resisting or organized force of any kind that looks like remnants of this terrorist network, then it won't be over ... . I think what we want to do is very methodically get the leadership, go through the documentation and satisfy ourselves that there is no core of this cancer remaining inside Afghanistan."
Opposition commanders accompanied by American special forces have encircled the two valleys that make up the Tora Bora region, Franks said. They are in a pocket of the White Mountains that backs up to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass.
"It sort of becomes a hammer and an anvil," he said, with the al Qaida force crushed in between
But this particular battle will take time, Franks warned: "This is a reasonably large area, and it has been developed over time as a substantial cave and tunnel, fortress-style complex. And so it's going to take us a while to get through."
The terrorist fighters are running short of food, water and ammunition, Franks said.
"We can wait longer than they can, and we will maintain pressure on this pocket of al Qaida until they are ours," Franks said.
He declined to say the 300 to 1,000 al Qaida force holed up in the mountains and caves are "surrounded." Instead he says they are 'contained.'
"The view of the opposition leaders on the ground is that al Qaida forces are contained in the area that I've described," he said.
Because of the ferocity of the battle, opposition leaders are speculating that bin Laden must be in the area and the soldiers are trying to protect him.
"I will say that a lot of people have lost their lives in these valleys, in this al Qaida pocket," he said.
Bin Laden's whereabouts are still unknown as the United States has conflicting intelligence on his location.
"At this point we simply don't know where he is," he said.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is also among the missing.
"Right now we simply don't have a good lead; the last we had was that he was in the Kandahar region, and I think I'd leave it at that -- we're simply looking for him, and we're going to keep looking for him as long as it takes," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced Thursday that the United States would put a $10 million bounty on Omar's head.
The United States has compiled a list of about 40 Taliban and al Qaida leaders that it wants custody of, with the possibility they will face a military tribunal.
"We suspect probably we have killed people on that list," he said.
Elsewhere in the country, special forces soldiers are accompanying Afghan opposition fighters on house-to-house searches where they believe al Qaida leaders were headquartered.
"We go out of our way to deliberately go to known and suspected al Qaeda hideouts and safe houses and sites, to go through all of the materials, and to do a thorough search for documents, and so forth, in each one of these areas," he said.
Roughly 1,000 U.S. Marines moved on Thursday from Camp Rhino to the airport near Kandahar. The Marines are trying to cut off escape routes out of Afghanistan, set up a base for continued offensive operations and also for humanitarian aid flights.
On Friday Marines moved American Taliban fighter John Walker from Camp Rhino to the USS Peleliu Friday, where he is being treated like an enemy prisoner of war, with all the protections of the Geneva Convention, Franks said from a hotel near U.S. Central Command's headquarters.
Walker has not yet been provided legal counsel as the United States has yet to decide whether he will be handled by the military justice system or by U.S. courts.
"His status remains: he is a detainee," Franks said.
Walker was captured in Mazar i-Sharif during a bloody, three-day uprising of Taliban prisoners.
While most of Franks' attention is focused on the battle in the White Mountains, he has given some thought to what will happen after the war.
One thing is certain, to the disappointment of humanitarian aid groups who are clamoring for more security within the country: the United States will not leave behind an occupying force.
"We have never believed that we would remain inside Afghanistan, and to this day, I will tell you the same thing. We will not remain in Afghanistan, although I suspect we will remain engaged -- we, our country, will remain engaged with the people in Afghanistan to try to help them have a better lot. But, no; military forces from the United States are not going to be an occupying force in Afghanistan."
Franks said the U.S. objective was to rid Afghanistan of al Qaida networks and the repressive ruling Taliban, and to pave the way for humanitarian assistance.
A multinational peacekeeping force, probably led by Great Britain, is expected to enter Kabul by the end of December after the new interim government headed by Hamid Karzai takes over on Dec. 22. The United States will not be part of that force, and Franks is anxious to make sure the force does not interfere with the continued pursuit of al Qaida leaders.
He has suggested through emissaries to Britain that the peacekeepers establish a command relationship with his headquarters in Tampa "to be sure that we don't ever get a conflict between the objectives of these organizations, one for security, the other for the destruction of al Qaida."
The presence of peacekeepers could complicate the prosecution of the war, according to military officials: they could be used as human shields by desperate al Qaida soldiers or they could get into the line of fire if U.S. forces are in hot pursuit of the enemy.
The United States flew its last planned humanitarian aid drop Thursday as roads are clear and the situation calm enough to allow relief agencies to deliver aid overland.
Nearly 25,000 tons of humanitarian relief supplies have been transported into Afghanistan overland since the beginning of December.
But relief agencies say the situation is still not in hand.
"The absence of safe and secure conditions in Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and elsewhere has made it difficult for UN agencies and relief organizations to re-establish operations" outside of Kabul, wrote Refugees International President Ken Bacon in a Dec. 14 to the American ambassador to the United Nations. He warns of "horrific famine" if aid agencies are unable to distribute food and supplies without fear of being attacked by bandits or Taliban fighters.