Mon, Nov 01, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan denies bin Laden is hiding there

EMBARRASSMENT Pakistan bills itself as a key ally in the US' war on terror, but the appearance of a video tape of bin Laden in the capital caused severe official blushes


The envelope containing terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's latest message to the world was dropped into a letter box in an upscale neighborhood of the Pakistani capital, the second purported al-Qaeda video to come out of this nation in little over a week.

Officials cautioned on Saturday that the tape's release to the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera's Islamabad office does not prove that bin Laden is in Pakistan.

But its appearance was nonetheless an embarrassment to a nation that bills itself as a key ally in Washington's war on terror, and that has spent months focusing its troops on a swath of tribal communities along the Afghan-Pakistan border where the fugitive al-Qaeda leader has reputedly been hiding.

Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Pakistan, said the tape was dropped off at the gate of the station's office Friday, just hours before it aired.

"The guard brought it to me along with other mail. It was in an envelope, I opened it and it was a big scoop," Zaidan said. He immediately sent the tape to Al-Jazeera's headquarters in the Gulf nation of Qatar.

Pakistan has sent tens of thousands of troops to the long and porous border with Afghanistan, concentrating on forbidding North and South Waziristan, where bin Laden and his top deputy, Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri, are both believed to be hiding.

Scores of soldiers and civilians have been killed, but the operations so far have not netted any major fugitives, leading to charges that the sweeps are conducted as a political show to curry favor with Washington, which has given Islamabad billions of dollars in aid since President Pervez Musharraf threw his support behind the anti-terror effort.

Bin Laden appeared far healthier in the video released on Friday than many would have suspected, considering speculation that he was already ailing in the winter of 2001 when US, Afghan and Pakistani forces began their dragnet. US officials have often described him as holed up in a dank and dreary cave, all but cut off from the outside world.

Pakistani officials were quick to move into damage-control mode on Saturday, saying they had no idea how Al-Jazeera got the tape, and insisting its existence did not prove the terror leader was in the country.

Major General Shaukat Sultan, the army spokesman, said the intensity of Pakistan's efforts in North and South Waziristan would make it impossible for bin Laden to hide there.

"Even if the tape was dropped here, that doesn't mean that he is here," Sultan said. "Nobody knows where he is, but he cannot be in Pakistan's tribal areas because of the presence of so many troops."

Added Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao: "I don't think he is in Pakistan."

In Afghanistan, the US military dismissed the videotape as "propaganda," and insisted bin Laden would be caught.

"Although we don't have a timeframe for when bin Laden will be captured, we have full confidence that he will be," US military spokesman Major Scott Nelson said.

Asked where bin Laden was hiding, Nelson said the military still suspected he could be somewhere near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"If we knew exactly where he was, we would be there in a moment and we would have a very happy day and a happy election," Nelson said.

Pakistan has made more than 500 al-Qaeda arrests since the Sept. 11 attacks, and arrests this summer that led to a terror warning in the US.

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