Bush says bin Laden may have `slithered out'' of Afghanistan but he will be caught

Friday, December 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Osama bin Laden may ``slither out'' of Afghanistan but he won't escape the global reach of U.S. forces, President Bush said Friday. He demanded help from world leaders in the hunt for terrorists and fleeing al-Qaida fighters.

``Thank you for your condolences. I appreciate your flowers. Now arrest somebody if they're in your country,'' the president said, offering American troops to nations needing help to seize terrorists.

Gathering reporters in the Oval Office for an end-of-the-year review, Bush pronounced 2001 a success for the Republican domestic agenda and America's budding war on terrorism. He praised lawmakers for cutting taxes and reshaping federal education programs, but called Congress' failure to pass economic legislation ``a big disappointment.''

``A lot of people are going to ask the question, `Why couldn't you get something done?''' Bush said. Still, he said it was unclear whether an economic revival bill would be needed when Congress returns in late January.

The war on terrorism dominated the conversation, just as it consumed the final three months of Bush's first year in office.

``The country is more secure today and less vulnerable to attack than before Sept. 11, because the enemy has made it clear that we are a target, and we've responded,'' the president said 101 days after suicide hijackings over New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

``Is it still totally safe? No. And that's why, as I've told you, my main job _ my main worry _ for America is to prevent another attack,'' he said.

Bush and his wife, first lady Laura Bush, showed off the new Oval Office floor covering, a cream-colored rug with golden bolts streaming from an American seal. A lone star, a taste of his native Texas, is stitched into the border.

One of the couple's dogs, Spot, rolled across the carpet as Bush shrugged off suggestions that bin Laden slipped away from U.S. forces during cease fire talks in Afghanistan.

``I don't know where he is. I hadn't heard much from him recently, which means he could be in a cave that doesn't have an opening to it anymore; or could be in a cave where he can get out or may have tried to slither out into neighboring Pakistan. We don't know,'' the president said.

``But I will tell you this: We're going to find him.''

Earlier, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. troops have begun combing Afghanistan's rugged al-Qaida cave complexes as part of the search for bin Laden. Senior defense officials say the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, proposed also sending several hundred Marines and possibly a smaller number of Army troops to the Tora Bora area.

Bush did not reveal his next target, but said the United States will reap intelligence gains and track terrorists across the globe. He suggested that the next phase of the war will not be as bold and obvious as the Afghanistan conflict, saying some actions will be covert and others will not involve the military.

``There will be a lot of moments of boredom and then there would be some great joy,'' Bush said, quoting Franks.

Senior administration officials have said high-profile targets such as Iraq are unlikely to be part of Bush's next move. He is said to be favoring action in countries harboring terrorists who pose the greatest and most immediate threat to Americans.

Somalia is considered prime for U.S. actions, the sources say, because some of bin Laden's al-Qaida forces are believed to be in the country and there is no central government to control their activities.

Whether the action involves troops, diplomatic action or bank transactions that cut off money to terrorists, Bush said he will expect help from other countries.

``We're constantly talking to countries, reminding them that if you're with us, perform,'' Bush said.

Bush said allies will be given U.S. intelligence to help uncover the terrorists. To ensure their capture, Bush said: ``We'll be glad to lend some troops'' to other countries.

Afterward, aides said Bush was willing to offer troops to countries tracking down terrorists, perhaps in support missions and not necessarily in combat.

The president said he had ordered the National Security Council to devise plans for handling the cases of captured forces in Afghanistan, including American John Walker Lindh, who fought for the Taliban.

Bush has not decided what to do about Lindh, but said he has not ruled out treason charges.

``We've told his lawyer that, at the appropriate time, we'll let everybody know, including his family, how we're going to proceed with Walker, as well as others that have become captured during this war,'' Bush said.

On the economy, Bush passed up an opportunity to criticize Senate Democrats for blocking a GOP stimulus bill. And while his spokesman said Americans will go jobless for months longer because of the Senate's actions, Bush expressed doubts about any long-term impact.

``We just have to see,'' he said. Asked whether an economic stimulus bill was necessary, Bush said, ``We'll see.''