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Afghans protest capture of officials

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KABUL, Afghanistan — As President Bush vowed to hunt terrorists across the globe, Afghan authorities were seeking explanations from the U.S. military for the detentions of 27 prisoners seized last week in a Special Forces raid.

The Afghans claim those taken into custody during the Jan. 23 raid north of Kandahar include anti-Taliban officials loyal to interim leader Hamid Karzai's new government, among them the local police chief, his deputy and members of the district council.

The predawn raid has emerged as one of the most controversial operations since the U.S. military shifted gears from forcing the collapse of the Taliban regime to the hunt for surviving pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

The Pentagon insists that Special Forces attacked a legitimate military target in the raid on an ammunition dump that intelligence analysts believed was being used by al-Qaida or Taliban forces.

U.S. troops killed 15 or 16 people and took 27 others prisoner after gunmen opened fire on them, the Pentagon said. One American soldier was wounded in the ankle.

Local Afghans have insisted that by the time the Special Forces arrived, Taliban renegades had handed over the weapons to pro-government figures, some of whom were among the dead.

A spokesman for Gov. Gul Agha in the southern city of Kandahar said Tuesday that the U.S. military had promised to begin releasing some of the detainees in a few days. At the U.S. base in Kandahar, Army spokesman Capt. Tony Rivers declined comment.

Yusuf Pashtun, Agha's spokesman, said the Americans had been asked for "clarification" of the detainees' status and the reasons they were being held.

Karzai said he would send a delegation to investigate the raid, which occurred in Uruzgan province — where he organized resistance to the Taliban before the Islamic militia collapsed last year following intense U.S. bombing and attacks by the northern alliance.

Wearing his trademark green cape, the Afghan leader was a guest of honor in Washington and was applauded by Congress as he sat next to first lady Laura Bush for the president's State of the Union speech.

Bush said that tens of thousands of terrorists still threaten the United States — "ticking time bombs, set to go off" — and promised to stalk them across the globe.

Bush pledged to push the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan to a dozen countries that he said harbor terrorist camps. He also warned of "an axis of evil" of nations like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, and said the United States would not allow them to threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction.

Offering chilling evidence of terrorists' plotting, Bush said U.S. forces in Afghanistan had found diagrams of American nuclear power plants hidden in terrorist hide-outs.

Earlier, testing themes for the speech, White House officials floated a figure that as many as 100,000 terrorists had trained in Afghanistan — far more than previously estimated. They later backed off, and Bush settled on "tens of thousands."

"Al-Qaida has never had that kind of strength," said Stanley Bedlington, a former CIA terrorism analyst.

In other developments:

—Pakistani police have cleared and freed without charges a British charity worker, James McLintock, who was arrested near the Afghan-Pakistani border Dec. 24 on suspicion of being a member of al-Qaida, the British High Commission in Islamabad said Wednesday.

—Australian special forces in southern Afghanistan have destroyed a cache of weapons and explosives at an al-Qaida cave complex, the Australian Defense Force said Wednesday in Canberra. It was at least the second major cache of al-Qaida material captured and destroyed by Australian troops in recent weeks.

—French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine confirmed Tuesday that two French citizens are among al-Qaida and Taliban suspects being held at the U.N. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said they should be returned home to stand trial. Authorities have estimated that about 100 French nationals were part of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in Afghanistan.

—Canadian special forces members in Afghanistan have turned over captives to U.S. forces, Defense Minister Art Eggleton disclosed Tuesday, fueling debate in Canada about whether Taliban or al-Qaida captives should be treated as prisoners of war or turned over to U.S. authorities, who refuse to consider them war prisoners.

Karzai said that he will rebuild Afghanistan by drawing armed men loyal to regional leaders into a national army, then giving them labor-intensive work like building highways. But Karzai insisted that Afghanistan can only begin to recover with immediate cash assistance.

The Afghan currency, the afghani, fell about 25 percent overnight, the plunge apparently sparked by a statement a day earlier by an International Monetary Fund official, Warren Coats, that the government may have to adopt the U.S. dollar as an interim currency.

In Kabul, the exchange rate at the city's markets was about 35,000 afghanis to the dollar, weaker from 28,000 a day earlier.

One trader, Matin Zulmay, said the fluctuation meant he had lost about $200 by midday and he complained bitterly about how the rate is based on rumors and guesswork: "Nobody can give us the right information. It is terrible for us."