Rumors fly, but intelligence sources silent on bin Laden's whereabouts

Wednesday, December 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. forces and their allies hunting through the caves of Tora Bora for signs of Osama bin Laden have no idea if they are looking for a body or a live target _ or even if he's there at all.

Various U.S. intelligence sources that monitor for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts have gone strangely silent in recent days, remaining quiet since U.S. forces unleashed a hellstorm on the mountains in eastern Afghanistan in mid-December, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Still, bin Laden is believed to be hiding or dead in a cave in the Tora Bora area, or fleeing through Pakistan, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Army Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for Central Command, said only that bin Laden ``remains unlocated,'' but he shed no more light.

Asked whether any additional Marines might be sent into the Tora Bora region to help hunt for bin Laden, Thomas said, ``We're keeping that option open. It's something we can still do if needed.''

Last week, the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, proposed sending several hundred Marines and possibly a smaller number of Army troops to the Tora Bora area.

If bin Laden had been killed _ either by U.S. bombings or by his own followers as a martyr _ someone would have probably talked about it by now over communications channels monitored by military and intelligence agencies, U.S. officials believe. In November, U.S. officials initially learned that top bin Laden lieutenant Mohammed Atef was killed from eavesdropped communications, Pentagon officials said.

That hasn't happened in bin Laden's case. However, no one has declared that he's still alive, either.

On Wednesday, U.S. forces launched 70 to 80 sorties from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, but _ for the fourth consecutive day _ none of the warplanes dropped any bombs. The planes have been flying in support of ground troops, something ship spokesman Lt. John Oliveira said was expected to continue Thursday.

The No. 1 terror suspect was last heard from about two weeks ago, when U.S. forces picked up a short-range radio broadcast of a voice believed to be bin Laden's, giving orders to his troops in the Tora Bora area. The transmission was not recorded, and officials acknowledge it may have been a ruse, but it was seen as a major clue to his whereabouts.

Intense U.S. bombing followed, coupled with ground assaults by anti-Taliban fighters and U.S. special operations forces. The fight culminated with a rout of al-Qaida fighters from the region, and many survivors fled toward Pakistan, where some were caught at the border by Pakistani troops.

A few hundred al-Qaida fighters are believed to have escaped into Pakistan, possibly with bin Laden. In Tora Bora, a few isolated pockets of resistance remain, as do many deep caves complexes that have been bombed but not searched.

Officials don't believe bin Laden has moved beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, though they have mentioned Somalia, Chechnya or Sudan as possible destinations if he runs. U.S. and allied warships are patrolling seas, ready to search vessels thought to contain the terrorist leader.

It's possible al-Qaida survivors are in deep hiding, observing rigid discipline with their communications to avoid giving away their leaders' whereabouts. U.S. officials consider it less likely that the leadership was so devastated by U.S. bombing that there's no one left to talk.

But no one is certain.

``I don't know where he is,'' Afghanistan's new prime minister, Hamid Karzai, said Wednesday. ``We receive reports now and then that he may be here or there.''

Others are willing to speculate.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in China a few days ago that he was ``reasonably sure'' bin Laden was dead, killed by American bombardments in one of the network of caves at Tora Bora.

``There is a great possibility that he may have lost his life there,'' Musharraf said. He didn't elaborate.

Another theory is that bin Laden had his own men shoot him _ and martyr him _ as American forces closed in. An Islamabad newspaper, Al-Akhbar, among others, offered that account last week, quoting Afghans recently arrived from Kandahar.

U.S. officials also said Wednesday that anti-Taliban forces near Jalalabad had been given a ``most wanted'' list with nine names of alleged al-Qaida leaders, all from Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

The list _ first reported Wednesday in The Washington Post _ includes bin Laden, chief deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, Atef, financial chief Sa'd al-Sharif (also known as Shaihk Saiid), and security chief Saif al-Adil. All are considered al-Qaida's most senior leaders.

Atef is on the list because U.S. forces never found his body, said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. However, they have little doubt that he's dead.

In addition, the U.S. is seeking Abdul Hadi, a commander of Arab forces fighting alongside the Taliban, the official said.

Also on the list is Ahmad Said al-Kadr, who ran the Afghan operations of Human Concern International, a Canadian charity, and Bilal bin Marwan, a bin Laden senior lieutenant, both of whom previously had their assets frozen by U.S. authorities after being identified as bin Laden supporters.

The ninth name on the list is Saqr Jaravi, a Saudi Arabian. Little information was available about him. U.S. officials had previously listed a Saqar Jawadi as a suspected bin Laden supporter, but it's unclear if they are the same person.