Officials skeptical of claim bin Laden out of Afghanistan

Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A Taliban diplomat's claim that Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan could be a ploy to thwart American-led efforts to find the terrorist suspect, U.S. officials said Saturday.

Military and intelligence officials said they had no evidence that bin Laden had left Afghanistan, where he and his al-Qaida network had been sheltered by the Taliban.

U.S. officials say the Taliban has repeatedly lied during the U.S. military campaign. When the bombing began Oct. 7, Taliban officials said they did not know where bin Laden was, only to announce later that bin Laden was alive in Afghanistan.

The new claim could be a similar ruse, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said. ''Our search continues,'' he said.

The Islamic militia's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told The Associated Press on Saturday that bin Laden and his family no longer were in Afghanistan. ''We have no idea where he has gone,'' Zaeef said.

The claim could not be independently confirmed, and Zaeef later told other journalists he meant only that bin Laden was outside areas under Taliban control.

U.S. airstrikes in recent days have focused on targets in Kunduz, the last northern city controlled by the Taliban, and the group's home base of Kandahar in the south.

On Friday, about 75 U.S. planes struck Taliban military forces and caves and tunnels believed to be used by the Taliban and al-Qaida, the Pentagon said.

An airstrike last week against a building where top al-Qaida leaders were gathered killed one of bin Laden's top aides, a Taliban official in southern Afghanistan confirmed Saturday. Mohammed Atef -- who American officials believe planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- died along with seven other al-Qaida members, a Taliban official said.

France's defense minister said Saturday that his country would contribute attack jets to the war in Afghanistan. Fifty-eight French troops are scheduled to arrive in the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif Monday to assist humanitarian relief efforts.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic north of Afghanistan, could get a U.S. aid package after allowing American forces to use the country as a base of operations.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Uzbekistan could receive humanitarian aid, security, water management, health care, and social services help from the United States.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, met Friday with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

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