WASHINGTON -- About 1,500 soldiers are heading to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba to prepare for the arrival of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners. The biggest prize -- Osama bin Laden -- remains uncaptured, though there's a growing belief he's gone to Pakistan, two U.S. senators said Sunday.
About 1,000 troops -- many of them military police -- from bases all over the United States have received orders to go to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the prisoners will be held under maximum security, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Sunday. Another 500 U.S. troops will go to the base in the coming weeks.
''This is our part and we are going down to take care of business,'' said Col. Terry Carrico, commander of the 89th Military Police Brigade at Fort Hood, Texas, just before boarding a plane to Cuba to prepare for the troops' arrival.
Some of the troops are being sent to transport the prisoners from Asia to the island, officials said.
Others will quickly prepare a section of the base to hold an initial first group of fewer than 100 prisoners, though up to 2,000 prisoners eventually may be housed there, Davis said. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the military campaign in Afghanistan, said Friday that some prisoners are to arrive at Guantanamo within 10 days.
The U.S. Navy base at Guan-tanamo predates the communist revolution on the island nation. It is well-defended and would offer few avenues of escape for prisoners. Fidel Castro's government says the base should have been closed and returned to Cuban control decades ago.
More than 300 suspected Taliban or al-Qaida members were in U.S. custody this weekend, military officials have said. Soldiers were guarding 275 prisoners at the base in Kandahar, 21 at Bagram air base north of Kabul, and one in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Another nine prisoners, including American Taliban John Walker Lindh, are being held on the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea. Afghan and Pakistani authorities are holding thousands more prisoners captured during the fighting.
But the top targets, al-Qaida terrorist chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, continue to elude the coalition hunt.
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is traveling with other senators in the region, said Sunday that Uzbekistan's military intelligence service believes bin Laden has crossed the border into Pakistan. Uzbekistan, like Pakistan, borders Afghanistan and has been a U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
''I fully expect the Pakistanis will do everything they can to help us locate bin Laden,'' Edwards told ''Fox News Sunday.''
Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said bin Laden and other top officials have probably escaped Afghanistan, but no one is certain.
''Increasingly as our efforts to get them in Afghanistan have been futile, there is a greater sense that they have, in fact, escaped, and are probably in one of those tribal territories just over the border into Pakistan,'' Graham said from Miami on ABC's ''This Week.''
Top military officials have said they don't know where bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, are.
Bin Laden was thought to be in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, but he has not turned up in searches by U.S. and anti-Taliban forces there. Omar was most recently thought to be near Bagram, northwest of Kandahar, but Afghan officials now say they believe he escaped.
In Cuba, the prisoners will be held in ''maximum security'' conditions, the Pentagon said, and will be treated in accordance with international standards for military prisoners and have access to Red Cross and other non-governmental organization personnel.
The military is planning tight security in light of the rioting by al-Qaida prisoners at Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, that left hundreds dead, including CIA officer Johnny ''Mike'' Spann, Davis said.
''We are cognizant of the incident that took place in Mazar-e-Sharif,'' he said. ''Many of these people have demonstrated their determination to kill others, kill themselves or escape.''
No decision has been made whether to hold military tribunals for some of the prisoners at the Navy base, he said.
Many of the troops will be Army military police from Fort Hood.
Military personnel are also being sent from Fort Campbell, Ky., Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Norfolk Naval Station, Va., among other bases, Davis said. The prison operation will be commanded by Marine Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert from Camp Lejeune.
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