ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani security forces came close to capturing Osama bin Laden in an operation about eight to 10 months ago, but the terror mastermind eluded arrest and his trail has since gone cold, Pakistan’s president said Tuesday.
Though President Gen. Pervez Musharraf did not say where the operation took place, the comment was the first official indication that bin Laden has recently been in Pakistan. Intelligence officials have said they believe he is hiding in the rugged mountains that straddle the border with Afghanistan.
“There was a time when the dragnet had closed and we thought we knew roughly the area where he possibly could be,” Musharraf said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. aired Tuesday.
“That was, I think, some time back … maybe about eight to 10 months back,” he said, adding: “But after that, this is such a game, this intelligence, that they escape. They can move and then you lose contact.”
The comments confirmed Pakistani intelligence officials’ claims that the trail of the world’s most wanted man has gone cold. Senior officials close to the hunt have told The Associated Press they have received no information on his whereabouts for months and have no indication of any specific attack he is planning.
Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders say the silence is a sign they have destroyed al-Qaida’s network here.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he did not have any information on Musharraf’s disclosure. But he said bin Laden “remains a high priority just like other al-Qaida leaders.”
“He is someone that has been on the run,” McClellan said. “We are dismantling the al-Qaida network. We have made important progress, but the war on terrorism continues. And we will stay on the offensive and take the fight to the enemy so we don’t have to fight them here at home.”
Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terror. Its security forces have captured more than 700 terror suspects, including some key al-Qaida operatives.
Musharraf’s remarks came weeks after the U.S. government launched a series of television and radio ads in Pakistan trumpeting the $25 million reward Washington is offering for any information leading to the capture of bin Laden.
Pakistani troops last year repeatedly attacked al-Qaida-linked militants in the country’s northwestern tribal regions near Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was last seen in a video released just before the U.S. elections in November. The video was dropped off at the Islamabad office of the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera, though there was no indication from the tape where Osama was when he recorded it.
In the 18-minute videotape, bin Laden threatened fresh attacks on the United States.