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Rumsfeld Visits Central Asia Base
Fri Apr 26, 1:50 PM ET
By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer
In a pep talk Friday to U.S. troops in this Central Asian outpost, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urged them to prepare for a long war against the "evil of mass murderers" — and not only in Afghanistan (news - web sites).
"To the extent that they have safe havens, sanctuaries where they can go, then the effort we've put into Afghanistan will be for nothing," he told about 400 troops assembled under a tent.
"You stand against an evil — an evil of mass murderers," he said to rousing cheers. "It's an evil that can't be appeased, it can't be ignored and it certainly cannot be allowed to prevail."
About 1,000 U.S. troops are based in Bishkek for fighter, cargo and air refueling missions over Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld's four-nation Central Asia tour is taking him next to Afghanistan for meetings with officials of the interim government and visits to U.S. and allied troops.
In a sign of security concerns, reporters accompanying Rumsfeld were forbidden to report in advance which parts of Afghanistan he would visit. The last time he was in Afghanistan the Taliban regime had just been defeated, the interim government headed by Hamid Karzai had not yet been installed and speculation about Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s whereabouts was rampant.
Rumsfeld rarely mentions bin Laden in public unless asked, but he was reminded Friday that at least some of those in uniform equate success in Afghanistan with getting rid of bin Laden.
In a question-and-answer session with U.S. and allied troops, one airman asked: "When we get our hands on Mr. bin Laden, are we going to negotiate with him or annihilate him?"
Grinning amid hoots and hollers from his audience, Rumsfeld replied, "In truth, it's kind of his choice."
"We're hunting him down," he said. "We're tracking him down. He's hiding. We haven't heard hide nor hair of him for about, oh, since December, in terms of anything hard." Rumsfeld said that even with bin Laden still on the loose, "He is probably not very effective now in running the al-Qaida organization."
Some believe bin Laden slipped away when his al-Qaida fighters made a last stand at Tora Bora in mid-December.
"My guess is ... he'll either be killed in some attack that takes place when we find him or he'll be captured, ... in which case we would have an opportunity to visit with him," Rumsfeld said.
He was also asked how long U.S. troops would remain in Kyrgyzstan.
"As long as necessary," Rumsfeld replied.
U.S. troops began operating from Manas airport, just outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, last December. They have poured an estimated $14 million into improving the airfield, building two munitions storage areas, an aircraft fuel and diesel fuel storage area and an airplane maintenance area.
The corner of the airport used by coalition forces has been dubbed Ganci Air Base by the troops, in honor of New York City Fire Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr., who was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. There are about 2,000 troops here — about half American.
The other allied nations operating from here are Australia, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea (news - web sites) and Spain. Their national flags fly from atop the tents in which their troops live.
Security at the air base is tight — including a metal wall around the compound, ringed by concertina wire — but the atmosphere appeared relaxed during Rumsfeld's 90-minute visit. Off-duty troops in short pants sat at makeshift picnic tables outside their tents.