KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts remain a mystery to U.S. and Pakistani forces as they crank up efforts to flush out al Qaeda and Taliban rebels hiding near Afghanistan’s eastern frontier, officials said on Monday.
U.S. military officials in Kabul have boldly predicted his capture in 2004, and Britain’s Sunday Express weekly reported that the world’s most wanted man was “boxed in” by U.S. and British special forces in the rugged Pakistani mountains along the Afghan border.
The newspaper said bin Laden was within a 10 mile by 10 mile area, being monitored by a U.S. spy satellite.
“As far as the reports of Osama bin Laden’s location, I don’t take much credence in them because if we knew where he was in Afghanistan, we would go get him and if the Pakistanis knew where he was in Pakistan they would go get him,” U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty said.
“We continue to have rumors over the past two years,” he told a news briefing in Kabul, when asked about speculation that bin Laden had been spotted.
Pakistani officials dismissed the report that located bin Laden in mountains north of the Pakistani city of Quetta.
“That area is in Pakistan but there is nothing there, life is absolutely normal — you can go and see,” said Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan. “There is no operation being conducted there and there are no foreign troops there.”
NOT ABOUT INDIVIDUALS
Hilferty distanced himself from recent remarks he made that he was “sure” bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar would be caught this year, reverting to past U.S. statements that the “war on terror” was not only about catching individuals.
“Obviously the global war on terrorism is about much more than a person or two people, it is about terrorism against people in general,” he said.
He also indicated that a planned spring offensive against Islamic militants was little different from previous operations carried out by the 10,600-strong American-led force in Afghanistan.
Most operations have failed to net large numbers of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters or top leaders, prompting U.S. officers in Afghanistan to announce a shift in tactics to civilian-military teams deploying in lawless regions to oversee reconstruction.
In Pakistan, Sultan described an operation in the semi-autonomous South Waziristan agency, where al Qaeda fighters are thought to be hiding with the support of sympathetic locals, as “absolutely normal.”
Pakistani troops working alongside tribal forces plan to carry out searches where they suspect al Qaeda guerrillas may be hiding, after tribesmen were urged by the authorities to give up militants they may be sheltering.
“This cordon and search operation will specifically be against foreigners whenever we get any information that X,Y,Z is in that house,” said South Waziristan’s top government official, Mohammad Azam Khan.
“The tribal maliks (chiefs) would be present and the whole operation would be conducted according to the rules and traditions of the tribal area,” he told the private Geo channel.
Political authorities which deal with the fiercely independent and well-armed tribesmen have asked tribal leaders to surrender more than 80 clan members wanted for harboring or assisting al Qaeda militants.
So far more than 40 tribesmen have been handed over by local leaders, but authorities say they have lost patience with tribal elders after several key suspects escaped.
U.S. and Afghan forces have often complained that militants evading capture in Afghanistan have been able to flee into Pakistan and hide. They also say that a bloody insurgency linked to the Taliban has been launched from Pakistani territory.