We have broken back of al-Qa'ida, says Musharraf

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Osama Bin Laden has not been captured because he is seen as a hero in the mountainous border region of Pakistan where he is believed to be hiding, President Pervez Musharraf said last night.

Osama Bin Laden has not been captured because he is seen as a hero in the mountainous border region of Pakistan where he is believed to be hiding, President Pervez Musharraf said last night.

The Pakistani President, who has admitted that the trail for Bin Laden has gone cold, said after meeting Tony Blair at Downing Street that people in the area had no desire to see the al-Qa'ida leader handed over to the Americans.

"I wouldn't deny this fact, that because of whatever has happened this man has taken the stature of a hero in certain kind of people, especially in the extremists," he said on BBC2's Newsnight programme.

Bin Laden was last seen looking fit and well in a videotaped message to US voters days before the re-election of President George Bush. It is thought his intervention may have persuaded some voters to back Mr Bush.

President Bush praised Pakistan after meeting General Musharraf in Washington on Saturday for its co-operation in the hunt for the al-Qa'ida leader despite the inability of US and Pakistani troops to find him.

Mr Bush also thanked the Pakistani leader for his help in ending a nuclear trafficking network led by A Q Khan, the Pakistani scientist implicated in selling nuclear secrets to Libya, North Korea, Iran and possibly other countries.

Yesterday, standing next to Mr Blair, General Musharraf claimed Pakistan forces had "broken the back of al-Qa'ida in Pakistan and had removed more than 600 al-Qa'ida terrorists" from its cities. "They are on the run," he added.

General Musharraf criticised the West for failing to do more to tackle the underlying political causes of terrorism. "Unfortunately, we are not addressing the core problems," he said.

But he indicated Mr Blair had given his backing to the search for a Middle East peace settlement which both leaders said was vital to reducing the threat from terrorism.

A London conference is planned for the new year to help the Palestinians cope with security after the Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, as disclosed in an interview with Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, in The Independent yesterday.

Mr Blair emphasised the importance of seizing the opportunity that was now present to reach a negotiated settlement over Palestine.

"The next period of time is absolutely crucial. If we don't seize this opportunity now, it may not come to us again," he said. "Most sensible people looking at the world today know that since 11 September we have got to take every action that we can to fight terrorism militarily.

"But we would be foolish to ignore the causes upon which terrorism preys. And that is why it is also important to address those political disputes as well."

President Musharraf will deliver a keynote policy speech in London today, before travelling to Manchester to meet Pakistani and other community leaders.

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