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General vows diligence before Afghan elections

American G.I. killed; detainee hand-over announced

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(CNN) -- A U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday U.S.-led forces plan to keep the heat on militants ahead of the country's September 18 assembly elections.

Besides Islamic militant activity, U.S.-led forces expect "local violence, criminal activity and civic unrest" involving the power struggles among former warlords and drug lords, Brig. Gen. James Champion told reporters via a teleconference.

But he said grass-roots support for democracy is widespread, noting that nearly 12 million Afghans have registered to vote -- around 1.7 million more than for the presidential election. Vying for the 249 seats are 6,000 registered candidates, he said.

"We know we will have a tough fight up to and through the elections. But we do not view it as a battle between militaries or religions, rather as a battle of confidence and will," Champion said.

Champion, deputy commanding general of operations and intelligence of Combined Task Force 76, leads troops deployed in the southeastern half of the country. About 18,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan.

"Let me assure you that the U.S. and coalition forces are going to maintain the initiative and conduct combined offensive operations up to and through the elections," Champion said.

Last year Hamid Karzai was elected president of the central Asian nation. In the weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S.-led forces ousted Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban government, which had harbored al Qaeda, the group responsible for those attacks.

Champion acknowledged not knowing whether al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, is in Afghanistan, but said the primary focus was on dismantling his networks and the spread of his philosophy.

As for the opposition's leadership in the country, Champion said, "We're not seeing the central core leadership, the dynamic leader that you saw in Mullah Omar.

"You now have two or three commanders and sub-commanders ... working around in specific areas that they're historically from.

"But we have not seen that one, single, uniting Taliban leader to date."

The only supporters left of Taliban leader Mullah Omar are the "remnants of his hard-core fighters," Champion said.

He did note an increased use of makeshift bombs by insurgents, but he had praise for Afghans who are alerting troops to such improvised devices -- a situation "you're not seeing in Iraq right now."

And he praised Pakistani forces, saying they are conducting operations "up and down the border in north and south Waziristan areas" and that communication with them "has been improving."

U.S. service member killed

A makeshift bomb killed a U.S. service member and injured another Thursday in Paktika province near the Pakistan border, according to a news release.

The blast also injured a soldier with the Afghan National Army, the statement said.

The death brought the number of Americans who have died serving in Afghanistan to 218, according to U.S. military reports.

Champion said that much of what appeared to be a "resurgence of violence" was really the result of aggressive operations "clearly being dictated by us and not by them," referring to insurgents.

At the same time, he said, the attacks continue on "innocent civilians, moderate religious leaders that have stood up and renounced this Taliban movement."

U.S.-Afghan prisoner transfer

The United States will return more than 450 Afghan prisoners held in detention camps in Cuba and Afghanistan to Afghan custody, the two countries announced Thursday.

Under the joint agreement, the 110 detainees held in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and some 350 held at the U.S. base in Bagram, Afghanistan, will slowly be handed over to Afghan authorities.

As part of the agreement, the Afghan government will take steps to prevent the detainees from participating in terrorist activities again, according to the Pentagon and U.S. State Department.

The United States has released hundreds of Afghan prisoners since invading the country in October 2001.

About 12 former detainees have been recaptured in Afghanistan fighting U.S. and Afghan forces, Pentagon officials said.

Pentagon officials were unable to give a time frame for when the hand-over will take place or how long it will take, saying only it will be a "gradual transfer."

The agreement came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with President Bush in May and expressed a strong desire to return Afghan detainees, according to Pentagon officials.

The United States holds about 510 suspected terrorists from various countries at the Camp Delta prison camp in the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.

Only four have been charged with crimes against the United States. Military commissions reviewing the four are due to convene within weeks.

CNN's Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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