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US allies take cash to free Taliban

US forces say Afghan soldiers under Kabul are holding Al Qaeda and Taliban men for ransom.

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US Green Berets from the 19th Special Forces group sweep into this desolate northern village of adobe buildings and dusty alleyways. Afghan militiamen under American command, some lugging heavy machine guns, take up positions inside a mud-walled compound. A Special Forces sniper perches atop an outbuilding, its walls cracked by the sun.

They've come here at a late-summer dawn to confront a local strongman suspected of harboring Al Qaeda militants. According to Sergeant Jerry, a Green Beret intelligence specialist, the warlord is not a suspected Al Qaeda sympathizer. Rather, as a Northern Alliance subcommander, he is Al Qaeda's sworn enemy.

But US commanders say he may nevertheless be peddling one of the most valuable commodities to result from their presence in Afghanistan: former Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. Since the early months of the war, stories have been circulating that Al Qaeda is paying locals tens of thousands of dollars to spirit its people out of Afghanistan. Now, some in the US military say this cash trade is flourishing with the help of Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) – Afghan soldiers supposedly under the control of the central government in Kabul.

"Foreigners are being held and ransomed," Jerry explains (Special Forces troops prefer to be identified by rank and first name only). "People are paying money for people."

In July, a subcommander in Konduz was forced to turn over Uzbek militants he was holding for ransom; they were with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which fought beside Al Qaeda in the Shah-e Kot Valley in March. Since then, three separate informants have accused the AMF subcommander in Daste Arche of doing the same thing – unusually solid sourcing in a war where hard facts are as elusive as Osama bin Laden.

Yet for Green Berets, the task of rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants isn't any easier now that their targets have become valuable hostages.

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