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Marines depart terrorist camp

Most extensive U.S. ground campaign yet yields few prizes

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — About 200 U.S. Marines returned to their base at Kandahar airport on Wednesday after sweeping through a deserted terrorist training camp in southern Afghanistan where they recovered only small numbers of weapons and few documents belonging to Osama bin Laden's Qaida network.

The Marines, who had left here early on New Year's Day in a convoy of Humvees and light-armored vehicles, concluded without incident what was the most extensive U.S. ground operation in a war that has been spearheaded by clusters of U.S. special operations forces calling in satellite-guided bombs from high-altitude B-52s.

In the same region, the surrender of perhaps 2,000 Taliban soldiers hiding in the mountains near the town of Baghran was going smoothly, U.S. and Afghan officials said. Afghan officials said the holdouts were on track to complete the handover of weapons and vehicles by the end of the week, in keeping with an agreement that was struck on Sunday.

"These are Taliban forces that are looking to negotiate themselves out of a predicament with anti-Taliban forces," Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington.

Military officials here described the negotiations as successful without specifying how many Taliban soldiers had given themselves up.

But some Afghan officials said that Taliban leaders, including perhaps Mullah Mohammed Omar, would use the drawn-out surrender to escape from Baghran. Omar, who fled Kandahar after turning over the Taliban stronghold to opposition forces almost a month ago, is also believed to be holed up in the mountains surrounding the town of Baghran in northern Helmand province.

"They wanted four days to surrender because they want to run away," said Hafiz Ullah, the security chief of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. "They're going to run away. Maybe we can capture the small commanders, but not the big ones."

In Washington, Pentagon officials acknowledged that many Taliban fighters might meld back into the hills. "There have been many instances where they've just evaporated — changed sides," said Stufflebeem. "This is just another example, that we're seeing the same thing. It's the culture within this area."

In related developments:

In Kabul, the Afghan capital, some 320 Taliban prisoners were released by Afghanistan's new government after spending up to five years or more locked away by northern alliance groups.

Security Ministry officials called it a gesture of national reconciliation and that more releases would follow. It was not known if the prisoners included al-Qaida fighters.

A moderate earthquake hit swaths of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan at midday Thursday, shaking house foundations and jolting cities across 400 miles of Central and South Asia. Some damage and minor injuries were reported in the Afghan capital.


Contributing: Associated Press