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Pentagon: al Qaeda regrouping in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines at the Kandahar International Airport carry 25mm ammunition.  

(CNN) -- Some members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network may be regrouping in Afghanistan and forming smaller groups that could resurface later, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.

"We believe those dangerous groups are still in Afghanistan," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told a Pentagon news briefing.

Stufflebeem said many other al Qaeda fighters, who were targeted by U.S. airstrikes and flushed from the mountainous Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, probably fled into Pakistan.

Anti-Taliban forces are trying to negotiate the surrender about 1,500 heavily armed Taliban fighters, who fled Kandahar before the city fell last month. The group has taken up positions about 120 miles northwest of Kandahar, near Baghran in Helmand Province.

There are reports that the group may be sheltering Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and possibly bin Laden, but Stufflebeem said there was no conclusive evidence that the men are together.

CNN's John Vause reports that U.S. Marines join the hunt for America's second most wanted man (January 1)

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"The reports are all over the map. And so there is not a preponderance of reports that would allow us to pinpoint a location, because if we had that, well, we'd have them," Stufflebeem said.

Stufflebeem said U.S. Special Forces are aiding anti-Taliban troops in the search for Taliban and al Qaeda leadership as well as continuing to provide intelligence and targeting assistance for possible U.S. airstrikes. (Full story)

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, entered a not guilty plea Wednesday for the first person indicted in connection with the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Zacarias Moussaoui, 33, a Frenchman of Moroccan descent, declined to enter a plea at his arraignment on six conspiracy charges. Prosecutors have until March 29 to decide if they will seek the death penalty on four of the charges. The judge set a trial date for mid-October. A court clerk said the trial will begin October 15. (Full story)

Latest developments

• The United States estimates Pakistan has withdrawn half of the 6,000 to 8,000 troops it had along its border with Afghanistan and has sent them to the Kashmir border, where it is building up forces in response to increased tensions with India. U.S. military officials say there are concerned about the withdrawal, worried it will make the border even more porous for fleeing Taliban fighters.

• The FBI and an official at a Minnesota flight school discussed the possibility that terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui might have been planning to use a plane as a flying bomb -- a discussion that took place before the September 11 terrorist attacks, a government official said Wednesday. The official said that at the time, there was no indication that a broader plot was being planned.

• An Afghan government official and U.S. intelligence sources reported Wednesday that the head of the Taliban's intelligence service was killed in a recent U.S. bombing raid. Qari Ahmadullah was in the home of another Taliban commander in Afghanistan's Khost province when U.S. bombs hit the residence. (Full story)

• The first contingent of French troops has joined the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. The group of 15 soldiers arrived on Wednesday at Bagram Air Base, the French Embassy in Kabul told CNN. (Full story)

• The Pentagon said Wednesday that U.S. forces have 221 al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. Two-hundred are under U.S. Marine guard at the Kandahar airport. Eight others, including American Taliban fighter John Walker, are being held aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

• The massive anthrax cleanup of the Hart Senate office building is nearing completion but it is unclear when the building will reopen, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator. Investigators won't know if the latest fumigation worked until tests are completed on about 400 strips that were removed from the building Monday. Those tests take five to seven days. (Full story)




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