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U.S. checking clues from Afghan airstrike site

An Air Force Predator aerial vehicle carries a Hellfire missile in an exercise.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Military investigators have found documents, weapons and human remains that could determine if a recent U.S. airstrike in eastern Afghanistan killed top al Qaeda officials, Pentagon officials said Monday.

The mission was completed Monday afternoon at the site, Maj. A.C. Roper said. The evidence will be turned in for DNA testing at a forward military operations base in northern Afghanistan, he said.

About 50 U.S. soldiers and forensics experts searched the scene in Zawar Kili in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan where an armed CIA drone scored a direct hit February 4 on a group suspected to be top al Qaeda officials.

The aftermath of last week's attack drew widespread speculation that Osama bin Laden might have been among those in the group, because the men on the ground were described as wearing white robes and one of them was tall, as is bin Laden.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a briefing last week whether evidence suggested the man suspected of orchestrating the September 11 attacks was among those killed.

"We just simply have no idea," Rumsfeld said, but he would not rule out the possibility.

Biological material not recognizable

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Capt. Robert Riggle, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, said Sunday the search teams had recovered "forensic evidence that can be useful" in determining an identity.

Officials said the biological forensic material will have to be tested because none of it is "recognizable."

The team said it did not want to come to a conclusion until specialists test the material. A period of extensive testing will follow, according to military officials.

Sources said the United States has been assured that it would be able to obtain DNA samples, presumably from the bin Laden family for comparison with forensic evidence, if needed.

The CIA has been flying Predator drones equipped with precision-guided missiles on reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan. The unmanned aerial vehicles are prepared to attack targets if instructed to do so.

Pentagon representatives Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem and Victoria Clarke defended the strike during Monday's Pentagon briefing when they were asked whether the military was sure innocent people had not been killed.

"There are no initial indications that these were innocent locals, and I base that on the facts that this team, in addition to just looking at the site where the strike occurred, also did some exploration in the surrounding area to include some caves, a nearby village, and talk[ed] to locals," Stufflebeem said.

Among the items found at the site were documents in English, clothing, two missile fins, an empty box used for a hand-held radio, AK-47 ammunition pouches and about 300 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, he said.

Whose operation was it?

Meanwhile, U.S. officials disputed Pentagon statements that last Monday's Hellfire missile attack was solely a CIA operation.

Two senior U.S. officials told CNN the CIA began surveillance of the target several hours before the attack at the request of the U.S. Central Command.

They said military commanders were in constant communication with the CIA and were watching live video from the Predator spy drone at the command's headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

That conflicted with statements from the Pentagon.

"This was an agency mission," Stufflebeem said at Monday's Pentagon briefing. "This was a case where Central Command was not actively participating or coordinated with this particular strike."

One U.S. official said, "The Central Command asked for and gave its concurrence prior to the missile being launched."

U.S. officials said intelligence experts from both the Pentagon and the CIA who reviewed the video after the strike continue to believe it was an appropriate target.

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr and CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.




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