KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan forces arrested three Americans, including a purported former Green Beret, after raiding a jail they were allegedly running in the Afghan capital and finding prisoners hanging from their feet, officials said yesterday.
The US military, facing a widening inquiry into prisoner abuse, quickly distanced itself from the three, who had been posing as American agents before being detained Monday. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that ''the US government does not employ or sponsor these men."
Afghan officials also dismissed claims by the apparent ringleader, Jonathan K. Idema, that he was a ''special adviser" to their security forces, saying the three had posed as military agents on a self-appointed hunt for terrorists.
The Americans and four Afghans who were detained along with them ''formed a group and pretended they were fighting terrorism," Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said. ''They arrested eight people from across Kabul and put them in their jail."
Another Afghan security official said intelligence and police officials who raided the group's house Monday found the prisoners strung up by their feet.
''They were hanging upside down," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said a report showed the men also were beaten.
Jalali said the Americans had no ''legal link" to any Afghan or other authorities.
Still, officials said they were seen regularly around Kabul wearing military uniforms and armed with assault rifles.
Idema, described in media reports as an former Special Forces operative known as ''Jack," first appeared in Afghanistan in late 2001, when US and allied Afghan forces routed the Taliban.
He featured prominently in a top-selling book, ''The Hunt for Bin Laden," which says he fought for 10 months alongside the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
He also offered his services to Western television networks. Yesterday, police gave an Associated Press reporter a business card apparently handed out by Idema.
The card bears an Afghan flag with a small Stars and Stripes at its center and a Northern Alliance flag. ''Special Adviser" is printed on the bottom and ''Jack" is scrawled in the Dari language at the top. None of the three phone numbers worked.
In Washington, Boucher confirmed Idema was one of the men in custody and identified another as Brent Bennett. He gave no other details.
One police official said Idema's group appeared to be behind the disappearance of a man in west Kabul three weeks ago.
The missing man was identified as Abdul Latif, and his wife told authorities she believed he had been taken into custody by members of the NATO-led force that patrols the capital, said the police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said three foreigners, dressed in military uniforms, returned to the house earlier this week, where police confronted them.
He said a man called Jack told the officers he had orders to arrest a terrorist before he could blow himself up in a government building. The three said they belonged to ''an important network," but gave no other details, the police official said.
Jalali said all eight prisoners found Monday were released. It was not clear how long they had been held.
Idema and the two others were seized by Afghan police and intelligence officers in Kabul on Monday. Jalali said the men were operating in Kabul under the guise of working for an export company.
The US military took the unusual step Monday -- before news of his detention was widely known -- of distancing itself from Idema, saying in a statement: ''The public should be aware that Idema does not represent the American government and we do not employ him."