British forces will "apprehend" rather than assassinate Osama bin Laden if they find him in Afghanistan, the Government announced.
In sharp contrast to claims that President George Bush had signed an order last month authorising "lethal operations" by the CIA, Downing Street said Britain would act in accordance with international law. Senior officials in Washington disclosed at the weekend that the "destruction" of the al- Qa'ida leader had been sanctioned in an intelligence order signed by Mr Bush.
But Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Government's position on "state assassination" had not changed and British armed forces would comply with the Geneva Convention on conflict.
"Our forces will conduct themselves according to international law," he said. "The purpose of these activities is to bring those responsible to justice."
But the spokesman stressed that while the death of Mr bin Laden was not an objective, it could be the result of an attack on his hideout because international law also allowed armed forces to defend themselves. "We would aim to apprehend while retaining the right to self-defence ... We are taking part in military conflict where there are likely to be casualties."
Ever since taking his decision to back military action, the Prime Minister has stressed that he wants to "bring to justice" Mr bin Laden and his colleagues. Although he has deliberately avoided a clear definition, insiders claim Mr Blair's phrase conveys a strategy of taking the terrorist suspect to America for a trial.
Downing Street was wary of using Mr Bush's declaration that he wanted Mr bin Laden "dead or alive". It does, however, recognise that rules of engagement allow him to be killed if British forces were attacked while seeking to arrest him.
* FBI agents questioning four suspected al-Qa'ida members are considering using a truth serum to try to force the men to reveal secrets about the network and Mr bin Laden. One senior FBI official told The Washington Post: "We're into this thing for 35 days and nobody is talking. Frustration has begun to appear."