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Senior al-Qaida Leaders Captured Team of U.S. Troops Captured Suspected Soldiers in Bunkers

By John Hendren and Alissa J. Rubin

Two senior al-Qaida leaders laden with training documents and laptops have been caught fleeing heavy bombing in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Tuesday, and Washington’s new special envoy to Afghanistan acknowledged that errant airstrikes in the country have cost “innocent lives.”

A team of U.S. soldiers captured 14 suspected fighters at the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr cave and bunker complex near Khowst without a firefight late Monday, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The two leaders, who were not named, were singled out for U.S. detention and brought to a makeshift prison in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar for interrogation. The other 12 were turned over to Afghan authorities.

Pentagon officials say they believe the arrests could yield valuable information on the al-Qaida network and its targets. Forensic scientists are searching the computers, mobile phones and training documents found Monday for information, with a keen eye on the telephone numbers stored in the phones’ memory and messages and documents stored on the computers, a senior defense official said.

The capture highlighted progress in a bombing campaign that has failed to yield al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar -- and has led some Afghan leaders to urge a halt amid reports of civilian deaths. As Myers outlined the potential intelligence gains from Washington, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad used his first news conference since arriving in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to offer a vigorous defense of the airstrikes.

The United States erred in abandoning Afghanistan after rebels expelled the occupying Soviet army in 1989, he said Tuesday, and Washington is committed to rehabilitating Afghanistan when the war ends. But continued airstrikes are needed to avert “a return of chaos and Bin Laden Jr. in the future,” he said.

“We regret the loss of innocent lives, but we have to weigh the risks of ending the war prematurely and continuing the operation. And I have no doubt, on balance, that we will continue the operation until we achieve our goal,” the Afghanistan-born Khalilzad said. “War is not a perfect business. Mistakes are made.”

As his only example, Khalilzad cited the Dec. 5 errant bombing which killed three U.S. soldiers and injured the interim prime minister.