Fugitive al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden recently escaped a sweep by Pakistani troops hunting for Taliban fighters and is hiding near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, an Afghan official said yesterday. \nHaji Abdullah, head of the Pashir Wa Agam district, south of the Afghan town of Jalalabad, said he had recently spoken to a former leader of the ousted Taliban regime who said bin Laden had made an appeal for a safe house. \n"Four days ago, I met a former Taliban leader from Peshawar who told me he had received a fax sent from a satellite telephone and signed `the Sheikh,' the title used to denote Osama bin Laden," Abdullah said. \n"The fax said that the Sheikh was safe and sound, that he had managed to escape an operation led by the Pakistani army in South Waziristan and that he had found refuge in a place on the border," he added. \nUS military officials have repeatedly refused to comment on speculation surrounding bin Laden's fate. \nThe leader of the al-Qaeda network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks has been the target of one of the most intense manhunts ever conducted since going to ground during the US-backed war to oust the fundamentalist Taliban in 2001. \nThe Pakistani military launched an operation on Feb. 24 near Wana, in South Waziristan, in Pakistan's western tribal belt, to hunt down "foreign terrorists" believed to be hiding in the area. \nAround 20 people suspected of al-Qaeda links were arrested in the operation. \n"Another Taliban source told me that Osama bin Laden had asked Taliban leaders to meet urgently in Quetta [in Pakistan] to try to find him a safe place to hide out," Abdullah said. \nUS commanders on the trail for bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar said in January they were confident that they would snare the two top fugitives within a year. \nThe comments by the leader of the US-led forces in Afghanistan, General David Barno, revived speculation that the kill-or-capture hunt for bin Laden may be reaching its conclusion. \nMeanwhile, American and Afghan troops killed nine suspected Islamic militants in a gun battle in the eastern province of Paktika, not far from the Pakistan border, the US military said yesterday. \nThe clash on Friday began when US forces opened fire on a group of 30 to 40 armed men who appeared to be trying to move to the side of their sniper position east of Orgun-E, 170km south of Kabul, in order to launch an attack. \n"They were armed, they were acting in a hostile manner, so we fired on them and then we pursued them with the Afghan National Army," US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty told a news briefing. \n"Nine of them were killed in that battle, and there were no coalition casualties." \nAt least 10 US snipers from a special operations task force in Afghanistan were involved in the battle, supported by a nearby battalion of Afghan troops. The rest of the group of suspected guerrillas fled. \nThe clash was one of the largest reported in recent months between 13,000 US-led troops in Afghanistan and their local allies and Islamic militants from groups including the ousted Taliban militia and al-Qaeda.
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