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Bin Laden is alive and hiding in Afghanistan, insists Musharraf

James Bone / London Times | September 28 2006

PRESIDENT MUSHARRAF, dismissing a French intelligence report that Osama bin Laden had died of typhoid, said yesterday that he believed the al-Qaeda leader to be hiding in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, possibly with the help of an Afghan warlord.

“It's not a hunch,” the Pakistani President told The Times. “Kunar province borders on Bajaur Agency. We know there are some pockets of al-Qaeda in Bajaur Agency. We have set a good intelligence organisation. We have moved some army elements. We did strike them twice there. We located and killed a number of them.”

General Musharraf has been in a verbal duel with President Karzai over Pakistan's role in the War on Terror, with the Afghan leader accusing it of allowing cross-border operations by Taleban from tribal areas. The two leaders held a contentious meeting over dinner hosted by President Bush at the White House last night. They did not shake hands.

Interviewed at his hotel in New York, General Musharraf said he believed that bin Laden was in Afghanistan, and suggested a possible link with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan warlord. Brandishing a UN report highlighted with coloured markers, the President read out its finding that the insurgency in Afghanistan “is being conducted mostly by Afghans operating inside Afghanistan's borders”.

The report, issued by the Secretary-General this month, identifies five “distinct leadership centres” of the insurgency, which “appear to act in loose co-ordination with each other and a number benefit from financial and operational links with drug-trafficking networks”. It says that Kunar province is the base of operations of Hekmatyar's wing of the Hezb-i-Islami party.

Hekmatyar and bin Laden fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1992-96 civil war that followed the Soviet pullout, Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun, who was the Prime Minister, turned his forces against those of President Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik.

When the Taleban came to power in Kabul, Hekmatyar went into exile in Iran while bin Laden found safe haven with the hardline Islamic regime. But Hekmatyar returned to Afghanistan when the Taleban were toppled by the American invasion and has since issued statements urging Afghans to support al-Qaeda and wage jihad against US-led forces.

“In Kunar province it is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is operating,” General Musharraf said, adding: “There must be some linkages.” He shrugged off a leaked French intelligence report suggesting that bin Laden may have died from typhoid fever sometime between August 23 and September 4 while hiding in Pakistan. “I don't know. Unless I am sure I never say anything,” he said. “If they have some source they should tell us. At least our intelligence does not know anything.”

General Musharraf, whose memoir, In the Line of Fire, has been serialised in The Times this week, defended Pakistan's much-criticised intelligence effort to locate al-Qaeda operatives in its autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border.

“I believe the biggest element of [their] success is the people are abetting and supporting in hiding the terrorists and al- Qaeda. This is what has been happening,” he said. “They have been hiding because some people support them. If they are hiding in a compound with four walls and they are doing everything from within that compound, not moving out, and the people are supporting, how would anyone know?”

He repeated his claim that the US had paid bounties for Pakistan's capture of wanted al-Qaeda figures. But he said that the money went to individuals. “No money has been given at the government level to the Government of Pakistan. These people carry ‘head money . . .' ” he said. “This money was given through organisations to the people who were involved.”

General Musharraf acknowledged that Islamic militants of Pakistani descent in Britain might seek the blessing of figures in Pakistan for terrorist attacks. But he said that he did not personally know the detailed movements of the two July 7 London suicide bombers — Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan — who visited Pakistan in the months before the attacks.

The general complained that Western countries had sometimes been slow to share intelligence because they “think we are some kind of backward people”. But he said that intelligence sharing was getting better. “You thought everything is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan. You should not bother. Now, after 7/7, people realise that no, sir, things are happening in your country,” he said.

“We are together to fight extremists and terrorism but . . . if you are in the blame game, that everything is happening in Pakistan, nothing is happening here [in Britain], we will not succeed.”


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