The US was at the center of a new diplomatic row yesterday after refusing to rule out military action against al-Qaeda leaders sheltering inside Pakistan, one of its closest "war on terror" allies.
The US director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, said al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in all likelihood alive and sheltering in a frontier zone where pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal leaders hold sway.
"My personal view is that he's alive, but we don't know because we can't confirm it for over a year," he told NBC television on Sunday. "I believe he is in the tribal region of Pakistan."
Senior US officials maintained that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf remained a linchpin of the campaign against terrorism.
But their comments signaled frustration over what US intelligence chiefs say is al-Qaeda's resurgence in lawless parts of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
Asked if the US could take action inside Pakistan, Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend said: "There are no tools off the table and we use all our instruments of national power to be effective."
Fighting along the frontier has intensified amid a countrywide wave of bloodshed that has killed more than 200 people, sparked by the army's storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad this month.
"Instead of pushing al-Qaeda out, the people who live in these federally administered tribal areas, they made a safe haven for training and recruiting," McConnell said.
The US administration's latest remarks sparked a curt response from Islamabad.
"Our stance is that Osama bin Laden is not present in Pakistan," Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said in Islamabad. "If anyone has the information he should give it to us, so that we can apprehend him.
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