REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Smoothing over what had been an acrimonious disagreement, U.S. and Afghan officials Friday signed an accord on the handing over of captured insurgent suspects to the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The custody quarrel over the detainees had been a key sticking point in months of efforts to negotiate a broad agreement governing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission winds down. During this year and next, Afghan forces are to take over increasing responsibilities for safeguarding the country.
Karzai had set a deadline of Friday for the handover of prisoners at the largest American-run detention facility to Afghan authorities. The agreement does not do that all at once, but sets a speedier timetable than the U.S. had originally sought.
U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of the NATO force, called the pact "another example of the progress of transition, and our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be a safe haven for terrorists." Allen and the Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, signed the pact at a ceremony in the capital.
More than 3,000 suspected insurgents are held at the detention center at Parwan, north of Kabul. The facility was the source of the Islamic texts that were burned -- accidentally, U.S. officials said -- in a trash incinerator at the adjoining Bagram air base, setting off more than a week of deadly riots.
The Koran-burning incident appeared to give Karzai greater leverage in demanding a handover of the facility. He said publicly that the episode would never have occurred if the Parwan detention center had been under Afghan control.
The U.S. had resisted the handover because many of the prisoners held are considered of high value for interrogation purposes, and also because of fears that if Afghans were in charge, many would wind up returning to the battlefield. The United Nations and other organizations have also raised concerns about abuse of prisoners in Afghan custody.
Under terms of the deal, American forces will retain day-to-day control over the prisoners during a transition period to Afghan control. The Afghans are to appoint a commander of detention operations, to whom the U.S. would provide "ongoing support and advice" for up to a year. The Afghans also promised to put a legal framework in place that would ensure "humane and secure" conditions for holding the detainees.
The prisoner issue had heightened tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments, at a time of simmering ill will over the Koran incident and the deaths of six American military men who were shot dead by Afghan soldiers or government workers over a span of eight days.
It remained unclear whether the overall strategic partnership agreement could be completed prior to a NATO summit in Chicago scheduled for May. Karzai has also demanded an end to night raids carried out by U.S. forces -- a tactic that the military says has been instrumental in killing or capturing thousands of Taliban fighters and field commanders.
-- Laura King
Photo: A member of the U.S. military at the detention center at Parwan, near Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. Credit: Massoud Hossaini / Agence France-Presse