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U.S. hunts 4 militant escapees in Afghanistan

The U.S. military searched by air and ground on Tuesday for four suspected Arab fighters who escaped from a detention center at the main U.S. military base here.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. combat helicopters zigzagged over dusty plains and troops stopped cars at roadblocks Tuesday in a search for four suspected Arab fighters who escaped from the main U.S. military base here.

There were concerns the men, who escaped at dawn Monday, may still be hiding within the sprawling, highly fortified Bagram base which houses the prison where they were held as well as the main command center for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Soldiers were scouring the grounds.

“We can’t rule out that they are hiding somewhere on base,” U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara said. “The four are a dangerous threat not only to Afghans ... but they are also a threat to the global war on terrorism. That is why we are taking this search very seriously.”

The breakout was the first from the detention facility, which is a plain-looking building of about three stories in the heart of the U.S. base.

Several razor-wire fences surround the base and areas outside the perimeter remain mined from Afghanistan’s civil war and Soviet occupation. Military teams patrol constantly and the main entrance is a series of heavily guarded checkpoints.

Tight security at checkpoints
A small town of the same name adjoins the base and U.S. troops blocked roads with their armored Humvees to check travelers. Men were forced to take off their sunglasses so the soldiers could compare their faces with photographs of the four.

At one point, a procession of wedding cars queued to be checked. The driver of one vehicle, decorated with green and orange plastic flowers, was forced to open its trunk as two women in blue, all-covering burqas sat patiently in the back seat fanning themselves in the heat. They were allowed to pass without showing their faces.

Several Blackhawk and Apache helicopters clattered over the town and surrounding countryside, flying so low that the crews’ faces were clearly visible as they searched for any sign of the four.

Police chief Abdulrahman Mawalana identified the four escaped prisoners as Abdullah from Syria, Mohammed al-Qatari from Saudi Arabia, Mahmood Ahmad from Kuwait, and Abulbakar Mohammed Hassan from Libya.

“We are doing our best to find them. We’ve put their photos in shops and mosques,” he said.

In the photos, the men are wearing orange prison outfits and one is grinning.

New arrivals
Afghan and U.S. officials say an increasing number of foreigners have entered Afghanistan recently to fight with al-Qaida and other militant groups.

O’Hara declined to identify the four or elaborate on why they were being held.

Rewards have been offered for information leading to their arrests and investigators are working to determine how the men escaped from the detention facility, where most of about 500 suspects in U.S. custody in Afghanistan are held, O’Hara said.

The breakout is the latest setback for the U.S. military as it struggles to contain unprecedented fighting by insurgents that has left more than 700 people dead in three months and threatened to sabotage three years of progress toward peace.

U.S. and Afghan officials have warned violence is likely to worsen before legislative elections in September.