Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Bin Laden was within reach: top French general


US-led forces in Afghanistan had Osama bin Laden "within reach" on at least two occasions, but were unable to prevent him slipping away, France's top general said on Wednesday.

French chief of staff General Henri Bentegeat said the al-Qaeda leader had evaded capture several times since 2002, but not recently. He didn't say where bin Laden had been tracked down, and refused to comment on whether French special forces operating in southern Afghanistan were involved.

"Several times the coalition has had Osama bin Laden directly within reach," Bentegeat told reporters during a visit to the Afghan capital. "But between locating a person and arresting them there is a gap tied to all the uncertainties of all operations of this kind."

A spokeswoman for the US military in Kabul had no immediate comment on the general's remarks.

Bentegeat said several of bin Laden's top lieutenants also evaded capture.

"At least two times they managed to escape," he said. "That's absolutely inevitable, normal in the conditions in which these kind of operations are carried out.

"I'm not saying there was an incident of this kind recently," he added. "To my knowledge, that's not the case."

Bentegeat made similar comments in an interview in March to France's Europe-1 radio station, saying bin Laden narrowly escaped capture by French troops in Afghanistan, perhaps several times. He did not specify when or where the escapes took place.

Some 200 French troops work with the 20,000-strong US-led coalition in Afghanistan in the drive to track holdouts of the former ruling Taliban regime and bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist group. They include an unspecified number of special forces based in Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, close to the Pakistani border.

Another 650 based in Kabul are part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force or are helping the US train a new Afghan army.

Bentegeat said France planned to add another 300 troops in August and that a French general would take command of the currently 6,400-strong international force, which is expected to expand from the capital into northern towns to provide security for September elections.

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