Pentagon says it's `anybody's guess' where bin Laden may be hiding; clues are diminishing

Monday, December 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Osama bin Laden is holed up in the caves of Tora Bora. Or he's hiding elsewhere in Afghanistan. Or he's escaped to Pakistan. Or he's dead. As the search goes on, all the Americans really know is what they don't know.

It's ``anybody's guess,'' offers one Pentagon official.

For all the battlefield gains against bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban allies, the key remaining American military goal in Afghanistan _ killing or capturing bin Laden _ remains unfulfilled.

In some respects the goal has seemed to become even more elusive in recent days.

Clues to bin Laden's whereabouts, which as recently as last week pointed to the mountainous Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, have dried up since his al-Qaida forces there collapsed and scattered.

The success by Afghan tribal fighters in routing the al-Qaida from their caves and bunkers over the weekend led to a sharp dropoff in the amount of radio communications that could be monitored, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday.

``A few days ago we believed he was in that area. Now we're not sure,'' Stufflebeem told a Pentagon news conference.

In Brussels, Belgium, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was asked about bin Laden. ``I know everyone's focusing on it,'' he said. But until bin Laden is located, it's ``not useful to speculate'' on his whereabouts.

Last week a voice believed to be bin Laden's was detected in a radio transmission in Tora Bora, but that was before his al-Qaida forces broke and ran. Stufflebeem said U.S. and Afghan troops are slowly, methodically searching abandoned caves and bunkers for clues.

``The search is now on, cave-to-cave, to find more and to interrogate more,'' he added.

Stufflebeem said no one should think the U.S. military ever had hard evidence of bin Laden's lair.

``I'm not sure how close we ever really have been,'' the admiral said. ``We have nailed it down to an area. Indicators were there. And now indicators are not there, so maybe he still is there, maybe he was killed or maybe he's left.''

Asked what is the Pentagon's latest assessment, Stufflebeem replied, ``Anybody's guess.''

Bin Laden's bases in eastern Paktia province connect to Pakistan by hundreds of footpaths, many of which would allow him to cross undetected. From there he could disappear into Pakistan's sparsely populated Baluchistan province. Then he might make his way to the Arabian Sea coastline.

President Bush said Monday he is confident the Pakistani government will assist the manhunt should bin Laden or any of his top lieutenants escape across that country's border with Afghanistan.

``The Pakistanis will help us and they are helping us _ look for not only one, Osama bin Laden, but for all al-Qaida murderers and killers. They will be brought to justice and it's just a matter of time as far as I'm concerned,'' Bush said during a White House celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Asked if he believes that bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is still in Afghanistan, Bush replied:

``We get all kinds of reports: that he's in a cave, that he's not in a cave. There's all kinds of speculation, but when the dust clears we'll find out where he is and he'll be brought to justice.''

The Pentagon hopes the dust clears quickly. Stufflebeem said the longer bin Laden remains undetected the more options he has for eluding his hunters. He mentioned that U.S. Navy ships are monitoring the waters off Pakistan's coast in case bin Laden or top Taliban leaders try to slip out to sea.

Rugged mountain ranges crisscross Afghanistan, providing hundreds of hiding places for bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan in 1996 after fleeing Sudan.

The Taliban's former intelligence chief, Mohammed Khaqzar, said bin Laden could hide for two years in the mountain range that links Helmand province in the south to Bamiyan province in the center of the country. The mountains have many small villages that could provide sustenance to fleeing warriors.

Others say bin Laden could head for Somalia because of its lawlessness; Iraq because of Saddam Hussein's battle with the West or a spot among the northern hill tribes of Yemen, where bin Laden's family roots are.