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3 Americans tell Afghan judge jail had US support

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Three Americans accused of detaining and abusing Afghans on an independent hunt for terrorists appeared in court yesterday, insisting they had contacts with the US Defense Department, a senior judge said.

The group's leader, Jonathan K. Idema, a former US soldier, acknowledged operating a private jail outside of Afghan law, said the presiding judge, Abdul Baset Bakhtyari. Idema insisted that his team had rounded up Taliban and Al Qaeda suspects in their makeshift jail until their arrest two weeks ago and that Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, wanted him dead.

''Bin Laden has half a million dollars on my head," Idema shouted at an Associated Press Television News reporter who tried to film him during the preliminary hearing. The reporter had to leave.

Afghan authorities have charged the Americans and four Afghan accomplices with hostage-taking and assault for allegedly detaining and abusing 11 men in a house in the capital. They face up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

US and Afghan authorities deny any links to the self-styled task force, describing them as vigilantes on a personal quest to fight terrorism. The men wore military gear, and Afghan police and NATO peacekeepers believed they were legitimate.

Idema, featured in a top-selling book about the war that ousted the Taliban in late 2001 and who has also worked with US television networks, appeared in court yesterday in pressed khaki fatigues. He wore a beard, a common feature for US Special Forces in Afghanistan, while a patch of white tape hid the insignia on the shoulder of his uniform.

Bakhtyari said after the hearing that he had informed the defendants to prepare their defense for full proceedings next week. The judge said the men allegedly tied their detainees' hands, hooded them ''and poured cold or boiling water over them during interrogations."

He had no information about allegations that Afghan forces found several prisoners hanging from their feet when the jail was raided.

The US military is embroiled in a widening investigation over the deaths of several Afghan detainees while in American custody.

The defendants acknowledged that they had acted illegally, while insisting they were part of the United States' global ''struggle against terrorism," Bakhtyari said. ''They said they were a nongovernment group but that they had private contact with the Pentagon," Bakhtyari said. He said the three gave no details. ''They couldn't provide any evidence."

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