Wed, Dec 15, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Officials dismiss reports bin Laden in Pakistan


Pakistan insists there is no evidence that al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is hiding in the country, and denies it allowed CIA agents to set up bases along its border to hunt the terrorist mastermind.

Pakistani and American generals agree the trail for bin Laden has gone cold, more than three years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said bin Laden had not been seen anywhere, and scoffed at reports he might be hiding in Chitral, in the country's scenic north.

"Osama bin Laden has not been sighted in Chitral or in any other part of Pakistan," Khan said Monday, adding, "there are no operations being conducted by US forces inside Pakistan."

President General Pervez Musharraf has previously acknowledged that a small number of US experts were working with Pakistani troops in operations against al-Qaeda militants. But he has denied that US forces -- deployed in neighboring Afghanistan -- are actively hunting bin Laden in Pakistan.

A report in Monday's New York Times, citing anonymous US officials, said the CIA had set up small bases along the border late last year, but the operatives were being hampered by uncooperative Pakistani minders.

It said the CIA had concluded bin Laden was being sheltered by tribesmen and foreign militants in northwestern Pakistan, and that he could be aiming to launch a "spectacular" attack on the US.

The issue is a sensitive one for Musharraf, who is under pressure at home from hard-liners opposed to his strong ties with Washington.

"There are no CIA cells in Pakistan ... in our tribal areas, and there is absolutely no truth in this New York Times report," said army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan.

Some believe bin Laden is hiding along the rugged border.

In an interview televised Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said bin Laden was "definitely" in the region, but didn't say where.

A senior Pakistani counterterrorism official said Monday that US officials had not found intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, although their information had helped nab some al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan.

"Whenever US intelligence and communication experts come up with some specific information, and they need our help, we organize things, act on their tips, but the operations are conducted by our own security forces," he said on condition of anonymity.

The Times said Pakistani military officials have strictly supervised the CIA personnel at the alleged bases in Pakistan, limiting their effectiveness.

A senior official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency denied the report's claim that militants in tribal regions may be getting help from its operatives. The agency helped build the Taliban militia before Pakistan switched allegiance to support the US-led war on terrorism.

Earlier this month, US President George W. Bush met with Musharraf in Washington and defended Pakistan's cooperation in the bin Laden hunt, saying its forces had been "incredibly active and very brave" in the South Waziristan tribal region -- a suspected hiding place of the al-Qaeda chief and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.

The forces have killed or arrested hundreds of alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers and busted terror training bases.

On Monday, a spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan said he couldn't comment on CIA operations. He said US forces were relentlessly searching for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.

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