CIA 'spent three years trying to capture bin Laden'

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America's central Intelligence Agency has been trying tocapture and kill Osama bin Laden for the past three years ­ sending teams to northern Afghanistan to boost the efforts of anti-Taliban forces, it was claimed yesterday.

A former official in the Clinton administration said the CIA had focused its efforts on Ahmed Shah Masood, the military leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated last month.

Masood was reportedly offered large sums of money if he and his fighters could trace Mr bin Laden.

Last week, the former US president Bill Clinton said he had authorised the arrest and, if necessary, the execution of Mr bin Laden ­ the prime suspect behind the terror attacks on the US. But yesterday's claims in The New York Times go considerably further, suggesting a broad, covert attempt that involved US and proxy forces.

"The main focus was location, location, location," a former administration official told the newspaper. "We have intensive intelligence-gathering efforts to track him."

While details of the operation remain secret, officials said that officers travelled to Masood's stronghold and discussed a series of options. If Masood's forces were unable to take on Mr bin Laden themselves, they were asked to provide information about his location. It is unclear whether Masood made any serious effort to do so.

It would have been a considerable challenge given that Mr bin Laden's bases are concentrated around the southern city of Kandahar ­ deep inside territory controlled by the Taliban regime.

The operation against Mr bin Laden and the effort to work with Masood intensified after the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in August 1998, which have been blamed on Mr bin Laden.

Two weeks after the bombings, Mr Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on a complex near the Afghan town of Khost, where Mr bin Laden was said to be meeting with several hundred of his men.

While about 20 or 30 members of the al-Qa'ida network were killed, it is believed that Mr bin Laden had left about an hour before the cruise missiles struck. After that he improved his security and cut back on his use of electronic communications, which could be intercepted.

Another Afghan group not connected with the Northern Alliance is said to have tried to assassinate Mr bin Laden, reporting to the CIA last year that it had failed in its attempt.

Mr Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said: "It was something that we focused on, on a daily basis and pursued with vigour."