KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai accused British and U.S. forces on Tuesday of continuing to operate "illegal" detention facilities in the country, another volley in the rancorous disagreement between the Afghan leader and his foreign backers over what to do with captured Taliban suspects.
A Karzai-appointed investigation panel found six Afghan detainees at a British-run facility at Kandahar Air Field in the south and another 17 at a British detention facility at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, according to commission leader Gen. Ghalum Farooq Barakzai. He said no detainees were found at the American facilities but said they should no longer even exist.
U.S. military officials had no immediate response when contacted for comment. The coalition has in recent years transferred thousands of detainees to Afghan authorities, and earlier this year American and U.K. officials protested when Karzai ordered dozens of suspects they considered a danger to be freed instead of tried in court.
British military authorities said in a statement that "detainees are held at the request of the Afghan authorities when there is evidence linking them to criminal activities." The statement said detention is crucial to removing insurgents trying to injure and kill troops and civilians.
The flare-up is the latest rift between Karzai and his ostensible allies, who have been frustrated with the president's increasingly anti-American rhetoric and his refusal to sign a security agreement to keep a small U.S. force of trainers in the country after the NATO-led coalition ends its mission and withdraws at the end of the year. Washington is hoping Karzai's successor will help reset relations, but a presidential election held April 5 has yielded no clear winner and so a runoff must be held. That means it may be mid-July before a new leader is named, leaving Karzai in charge
Karzai has long railed against the existence of a U.S. - and British-run detention centers on Afghan soil — where hundreds of other prisoners were held without charge as enemy combatants starting in 2002 — as an illegal violation of Afghan sovereignty and a symbol of disregard for his elected government.
His statement Tuesday appeared to have come after the revelation that some detainees were still being held by British forces after dozens of others were handed over to the Afghan side last year. The U.S., under pressure from Karzai, signed an agreement to transfer its prisons and detainees into Afghan custody. British forces in Afghanistan are allowed to detain suspects for 96 hours but can hold them longer in "exceptional circumstances."
Karzai has repeatedly said any foreign-run prisons or jails in Afghanistan are illegal.
"After many decrees that have been issued by the presidential palace about not having any detention centers run by foreign forces, still foreign forces are detaining Afghan and putting them in prisons," a statement from Karzai's office said. "It's a clear violation of the law of Afghanistan."
On Tuesday, commission chief Barakzai demanded that the British immediately hand over any Afghans being held, saying the 23 detainees seen by the commission had been held for times ranging from several weeks to 31 months.
"All the detainees should be transferred to Afghan security forces in the areas where they were arrested, "he said. "Then the judicial officials in that area will investigate them and put them on trial. If they are guilty they should be jailed, if they are innocent they should be freed."
The U.S. handed over the Parwan Detention Center — near the American military's Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul — to Afghan authorities in 2012 under an agreement that they would be tried in Afghan courts.
Karzai has referred to the Parwan prison as a "Taliban-producing factory," where innocent Afghans have been tortured into hating their country. He called it a "very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan" when the prison was finally handed over to Afghan control.
The British military also transferred dozens of its detainees from Camp Bastion to the Afghan government last year, but the U.K. has denied its detention centers are illegal. It was unclear Tuesday how many of the 23 detainees seen by the Afghan commission were newly captured or if they remained behind during last year's detainee transfer.
Associated Press writer Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.