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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Bin Laden Video Offers Few Clues on His Whereabouts

War: Date of new tape is unclear. Afghan official warns that pockets of Al Qaeda holdouts remain.

December 27, 2001|JOHN HENDREN and CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KABUL, Afghanistan — As one of Afghanistan's new leaders warned Wednesday that fighters with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network are still at large, a newly released videotape of the terrorist mastermind raised questions about whether he had been killed in the massive U.S. bombing of the country.

"Our terrorism is benign," Bin Laden said in an English transcript of the five-minute videotape excerpt, broadcast Wednesday on the Qatari-based Al Jazeera satellite television network. "It seeks to make the unjust stop making injustice. It seeks to make America stop its support for Israel, which kills our people."

Nothing in the recording revealed exactly when it was made. Bin Laden said his remarks commemorated the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--"three months after the blessed strikes against world infidelity and the head of infidelity, namely America, and two months after the fierce crusade against Islam," an apparent reference to the Oct. 7 launch of U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan.

Yet he also made reference to a Nov. 16 attack on the eastern Afghan city of Khowst as happening "a few days ago."

Al Jazeera officials said they will broadcast the entire 33-minute tape today. They said they had received the tape Tuesday. It wasn't immediately known whether U.S. networks would also air the whole tape.

The chief editor of Al Jazeera, Ibrahim Hilal, told Associated Press that his station received the tape "a couple of days ago" by an air courier service from Pakistan. The sender was anonymous, he said.

Bin Laden's whereabouts have been the subject of intense concern.

On Wednesday, a Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Rob Winchester, said the U.S. was not going ahead with preparations to have Marines join the search of caves in Bin Laden's suspected mountain redoubt of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, for traces of him or his Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Special Forces, however, will continue to aid that search. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said the Marines were one of several options for the operation, never the only one.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that intelligence reports on Bin Laden's whereabouts are conflicting--some say he died in strikes this month on Tora Bora, others say he fled to Pakistan, and still others suggest that he remains alive in Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence sources studied a previous Bin Laden video and determined his general location based on rock pictured in the tape.

In the new video, however, Bin Laden spoke before a tent-like fabric, a Kalashnikov rifle visible at his side. Some observers noted that the left-handed Bin Laden moved only his right hand during the segment, and they speculated that he may have been injured.

Bin Laden, clad in olive combat fatigues and a wool cap, his beard grayer than in videotapes made earlier in the military campaign, spoke calmly in the newly released tape. He appeared gaunt, hollow-eyed and older than his 44 years.

Afghan Official Warns of Terrorist Pockets

In Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, newly installed Foreign Minister Abdullah told reporters Wednesday that the country is still plagued by pockets of Al Qaeda holdouts.

"In some of the southern parts of Afghanistan, in Paktia province, we believe there are still pockets of Al Qaeda," he said.

"Afghanistan needs international support in the war against terrorism. We don't want to see the job half-done," Abdullah said in his first official news conference.

Franks, the U.S. general, told sailors Tuesday that the manhunt for Bin Laden will continue "until we satisfy ourselves that he is there and dead."

In the video excerpt televised Wednesday, Bin Laden assailed the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, charging that "many villages were wiped out" by the bombing campaign and that "millions of people" were forced from their homes.

The Bush administration believes that it "is their right to annihilate people so long as they are Muslims and non-Americans," he added.

Most U.S. officials reached Wednesday said the tape excerpt offered nothing new, other than an indication that Bin Laden was alive several weeks ago. As to his charges, the officials said Bin Laden was twisting facts in a desperate attempt to rally his supporters.

Senior Pentagon spokesman Richard McGraw saw the excerpt rebroadcast on CNN but said the Defense Department has no way of knowing when it was made and had not received a copy. White House spokesman Scott McClellan called it "nothing more than the same kind of terrorist propaganda we've heard before."

Bin Laden described the allied bombing campaign as excessive, contrasting the 4,000 pounds of explosives used by Al Qaeda terrorists who bombed the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998 with the 15,000-pound "daisy cutters" dropped by U.S. warplanes on suspected Al Qaeda hide-outs in Afghanistan.

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