SPINBOLDAK, Afghanistan — Afghan fighters backed by U.S. special forces sealed a key border crossing into Pakistan on Friday in an apparent attempt to keep tribesmen from bringing weapons into the war-torn country.
The border closure was a first step as authorities prepared to disarm Afghan factions in the town of Spinboldak, about 55 miles southeast of Kandahar where U.S. Marines came under heavy attack at the airport Thursday.
Unknown fighters opened fire as the first planeload of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners left the airport base for the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba and triggered an intense 40-minute gunbattle, the first on the base since the 3,000 Marines dug in a month ago.
Marines said Friday they had seen unknown men watching the base for days.
"You always see people out there, scoping us out, and under the rules of engagement there's not a damn thing you can do," said Lance Cpl. William Bee, 19.
Deteriorating security throughout the province is a growing concern. Not only are many Taliban and al-Qaida fighters possibly still in the province, but local tribal leaders frequently are distrustful of each other and are believed to hold weapons stockpiles against future interethnic conflict.
Journalists traveling into the province from Pakistan frequently complain of shakedowns at the border. A spokesman for regional governor Gul Agha said Friday that the disarmament efforts in Spinboldak were aimed in part at ending that practice, which he said embarrassed his government.
About a dozen U.S. special forces were among the 30-vehicle convoy, which included Agha and his fighters, that came to Spinboldak. Agha intends to name a new leadership for Spinboldak after which the various local factions are to turn in their weapons.
In the meantime, Agha's forces closed the crossing point about 10 miles south of here at the Pakistani town of Chaman.
Security in Kabul, the capital, also has been threatened by the presence of armed men on the streets. Friday midnight was the deadline for meeting Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's order that all armed men return to their barracks.
Although there was a noticeable reduction in the number of men carrying Kalashnikovs and of vehicles packed with armed men, guns were still a common sight on Friday.
In other developments:
—The State Department announced Friday that Secretary of State Colin Powell would visit Afghanistan next week in support of Karzai's pro-Western interim government installed three weeks ago.
—The flight carrying the al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners landed Friday afternoon at Guantanamo, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference. He also said one of the prisoners was sedated during the flight.
—Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., visited Kabul Friday and said the interim government was already "exceeding expectations." He urged critics to give the Karzai government time to complete its tasks.
—The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that U.S. planes bombed the Zhawar area in Afghanistan's eastern Khost province, targeting three camps believed to be used by al-Qaida. There were two waves of attacks overnight and later Friday, according to the report.
Marine officers said the Thursday attack on the Kandahar base was unconnected to the transfer of 20 prisoners, and that the plane was not targeted. But front-line troops said the gunmen fired at the plane as it took off.
The Marines estimated eight to 14 people armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles launched the probing attack from three different positions, getting to within 400 yards of the outer defensive perimeter of the sprawling air base. Intermittent shooting continued for about 40 minutes, Marine officers said.
The Marines responded with M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers and cannon, and sent up Cobra attack helicopters to look for attackers. A light armored vehicle was dispatched to one abandoned mud house where some fire came from, but no one was found. There were no U.S. casualties.
Rumsfeld also questioned reports earlier this week that Agha had released seven high-ranking Taliban leaders who were detained in Kandahar. The seven supposedly included Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, the former Taliban justice minister and one of the Taliban figures most closely linked to al-Qaida. Turabi led the campaign to destroy two giant sandstone statues of Buddha last year.
"I'm not saying anyone's wrong," Rumsfeld said of the reports. "All I'm saying is, we have pressed to try to find if it's true, and we have not been able to find any evidence that would validate it."
Meanwhile, 30 new prisoners were brought to the mud-walled detention center at the Kandahar base, ringed by high coils of razor wire. Rumsfeld said there were now 445 prisoners under U.S. control in Afghanistan.
Outside Afghanistan, U.S. and Pakistani forces continued scouring a rugged and remote mountain region for the remains of seven U.S. soldiers who died when their refueling tanker plane crashed Wednesday while trying to land at a Pakistani air base.