MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. special forces have scaled back their presence in northern Afghanistan, but military investigators are still "pursuing leads" on key Taliban figures or those linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, a U.S. commander said Friday.
The reduction in the special forces contingent suggests U.S. military interrogators have nearly finished with the major task of questioning the remaining 3,500 Taliban prisoners in a severely overcrowded compound in the northern city of Shibergan. A few prisoners have been moved from Shibergan to the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But Col. Kevin Wilkenson, commander of the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division based at the main airfield outside Mazar-e-Sharif, would not rule out additional interrogations in the prison or elsewhere in the hunt for top Taliban or al-Qaida members.
"If we see intelligence that leads us to the prison or anywhere, we will follow it," said Wilkenson. "We will not stop pursuing leads and following up reports anywhere they take us."
The 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., forms the core of the more than 100 U.S. soldiers at the Soviet-built air base, a hub for humanitarian supplies coming to northern Afghanistan.
Military engineers are working to repair parts of the huge airstrip hit by American bombs and other teams explode mines and live munitions using a remote-controlled vehicle. French troops, who were also involved in repairs and mine clearance, departed Thursday.
U.S. officials would not give the number of special forces personnel based in the Mazar-e-Sharif area, but said the contingent has dropped "noticeably" in the past week.
"They will be here for a while ... but I think we are seeing a gradual return to normalcy," said Wilkenson, of Duncan, Okla.
Northern Afghanistan remains one of the major question marks for the interim government in Kabul, the capital, that replaced the toppled Taliban. At least three militia commanders hold sway over territory and skirmishes have reportedly increased.
Wilkenson believes the warlords have displayed some level of cooperation, such as agreeing to move main military barracks from the center of Mazar-e-Sharif. But there has been no serious move to heed the interim government's appeal to disarm.
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