MOSCOW – Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf further backed off his claim that Osama bin Laden was dead, saying the al-Qaida leader could have survived U.S. bombing and be hiding in the Afghan mountains near Pakistan.
But he said the world’s most wanted terrorist is definitely not in Pakistan, and al-Qaida was in disarray and unable to mount large-scale attacks.
Musharraf also voiced skepticism about U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s allegation that Iraq had maintained ties to al-Qaida before Sept. 11 through Iraq’s embassy in Pakistan.
“We don’t think any such activities took place,” Musharraf said. “At least, we don’t have any information or intelligence on this. If (Powell) has the intelligence and information, we need to analyze whatever information he has.”
Powell made the claim during his presentation of evidence against Iraq at the U.N. Security Council Wednesday.
Musharraf said that he had originally believed that bin Laden had died after the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
“But now there is some information showing that maybe he is alive,” Musharraf said at a news conference in Moscow. “So I will leave it at that. I can’t be very sure whether he is dead or alive. But indeed there are indications that he is alive.”
The comments are a further backtrack for the Pakistani leader, who last month told the Italian magazine Panorama that he thought bin Laden probably had been killed, but that there was no way to know for sure.
U.S. intelligence officials say they believe that an audiotape, sent in November to the Al-Jazeera television network and featuring bin Laden’s voice, was genuine. The terrorist leader’s whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be hiding in the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Musharraf said bin Laden’s presence in his country was impossible, because he and his entourage would surely be detected.
“We don’t give any possibility to sanctuary in our area having been taken by a large body of people protecting Osama bin Laden,” Musharraf said. “That would be visible. It cannot remain invisible. So, therefore, I am very sure he cannot be in Pakistan. If he is alive, he must be in Afghanistan.”
Pakistani army and border guard units patrol Pakistan’s frontier areas and the tribal leaders had agreed to inform the government of the presence of any foreigner in the border area, Musharraf said.
In any event, Musharraf said, al-Qaida is finished as a significant terrorist organization.
“They are dispersed and they are on the run and they are hiding,” Musharraf said. “The only thing they can do is to undertake minor actions anywhere around the world but no major operation capability can be attributed to them at the moment.”
That assessment is not shared by the FBI, which says al-Qaida still represents the greatest threat to launch an attack on U.S. interests.
Musharraf said the issue of al-Qaida and its alleged links to separatists in the breakaway region of Chechnya in southern Russia had been raised during his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Pakistan leader said he had sought to clarify Pakistan’s view of al-Qaida to the Russians who in the past have expressed concerns about Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Islamic extremism. “We feel that this element is in many quarters vastly misunderstood,” Musharraf said, without elaborating.