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Bin Laden Rumors Snowball

A report that two of the Al Qaeda leader's sons were captured is denied. Pakistan says no U.S. troops are searching within its borders.

March 08, 2003|Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Senior Pakistani officials sharply denied reports Friday that U.S. forces were carrying out aggressive operations along this country's western frontier to capture Osama bin Laden.

Rumors and disputed reports, including one that U.S. forces just across the border in southeastern Afghanistan had arrested two of Bin Laden's 14 sons, have been swirling since Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda's alleged operations chief, was captured in Pakistan in a predawn raid March 1.

In Washington, a U.S. intelligence official said Friday that information gathered from the scene of Mohammed's arrest had been helpful and that Mohammed himself had talked "a little bit" to interrogators.

But the official said that neither Bin Laden nor any of his sons was in custody, and sought to tamp down expectations that a capture of the Al Qaeda leader was imminent.

Afghan intelligence chief Shah Alam also denied the report about Bin Laden's sons.

"Nothing has happened regarding Bin Laden till now," he said Friday night in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

And although the latest report came out of Pakistan, presidential spokesman Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi accused anonymous U.S. sources in Washington of feeding, in some cases, what he called false information to reporters.

Qureshi said he had received hundreds of phone calls Thursday night, including frantic inquiries from U.S. officials, after reports that American forces were mounting search operations in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, which borders southern Afghanistan.

"There is nothing happening. No operation, no arrests," Qureshi insisted in an interview Friday. "I don't know how these reports based on Washington sources are claiming that there have been arrests in Baluchistan.

"I have checked up with the intelligence agencies, and there is absolutely nothing. I don't say that sources in Washington are liars, but they are certainly not telling the truth."

The Pakistani government, which is a key ally in the U.S.-declared war on terror but also faces pressure from a militant Islamic segment of the population, has long denied that Bin Laden is hiding in the country, and its repudiation of the flurry of reports might have been an attempt to keep the Al Qaeda leader at arm's length.

It wasn't the first time that Pakistani officials have contradicted U.S. sources since Mohammed's arrest. For two days after U.S. officials said Mohammed had been moved out of Pakistan to a secret location, Pakistan's government insisted that he was still in the country and under its control.

Reports that Mohammed had told interrogators where to find Bin Laden in Pakistan "are absolutely baseless," Qureshi said Friday.

He said that some U.S. troops are concentrating on Afghan territory along Pakistan's border but that none are active in Pakistan.

"I am the spokesman for the military and President [Pervez] Musharraf: If there is any movement of troops, I am the first one to know about it," Qureshi said.

A provincial minister in Baluchistan, where Mohammed eluded capture earlier this year, set off a frenzy of reports picked up by international news agencies by claiming Friday that U.S. forces had arrested two of Bin Laden's sons in Afghanistan.

Baluchistan Home Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zahri said U.S. troops had arrested the younger Bin Ladens in the Afghan town of Robat, about 350 miles west of the Pakistani city of Quetta and close to the Iranian border.

Local reports of the arrests claimed that U.S. forces had killed about seven other Al Qaeda members in a fierce gun battle.

After the story was picked up by international wire services and after U.S. officials in Washington were quoted as saying they didn't believe it, Zahri conceded that he might have been wrong.

More-senior Pakistani officials said it was simply one of numerous rumors churned up in the wake of Mohammed's arrest.

Iftikhar Ahmed, a top-ranking counter-terrorism official in Pakistan's Interior Ministry, also asserted there was no operation underway in Pakistan to capture Bin Laden, although he added cautiously: "Not in my knowledge, at least."

Other Interior Ministry sources said Pakistan's security forces are following several leads gleaned from computer disks, a laptop computer, handwritten letters and other evidence seized in the raid that led to Mohammed's arrest.

"But this search is not in the form of an [arrest] operation, nor is it focused on Bin Laden," a senior Interior Ministry official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Pakistani officials said Mohammed fled the port city of Karachi after the September arrest of another key Al Qaeda operative, Ramzi Binalshibh. Mohammed escaped to Quetta, Baluchistan's capital, the officials said.

He left Quetta last month after one of his team members, an Egyptian identified as Asadullah, was arrested during a joint raid by agents from the FBI and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the sources said. Mohammed moved first to Lahore, then to Rawalpindi, they added.

The sources suspect that Bin Laden has almost certainly moved since Mohammed's arrest.

"He surely knows that Khalid has been captured and will avoid moving to places he [Mohammed] knew about," said one official quoted in local newspaper reports. Pakistani officials have also hinted that Mohammed was betrayed by someone inside the organization who wanted to collect a $25-million reward for his capture.

"I am not going to tell you how we captured him, but Khalid knows who did him in," the official was quoted as saying.

*

Times staff writer Watson reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and special correspondent Zaidi from Islamabad. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and special correspondents Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Najibullah Murshed in Kabul contributed to this report.

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