Clinton sanctioned killing of bin Laden in 1998

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The former US President Bill Clinton has revealed that his administration ordered the arrest ­ and if required, the killing ­ of the prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, several years ago, but was thwarted by a lack of hard information about him.

It is understood that the former president ordered the CIA to start conducting covert operations against Mr bin Laden in 1998, by which time he was based in Afghanistan. The order came after the bombing attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, believed to have been carried out by Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation and which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

"At the time we did everything we can do,'' Mr Clinton said of the 1998 operations. Speaking to reporters in New York after a briefing by the city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, he added: "I authorised the arrest and, if necessary, the killing of Osama bin Laden and we actually made contact with a group in Afghanistan to do it.We also trained commandos for a possible ground action, but we did not have the necessary intelligence to do it in the way we would have had to do it.''

The former US leader said that any action against Mr bin Laden now could have a greater chance of success given the broader level of international support for retaliatory action. "Now we have support from people who would not have supported us then, and they give us many more tactical options than were available then,'' he said. "Can this big international movement be defeated? Absolutely it can."

It is understood that the Pakistan intelligence service has the most reliable information about Mr bin Laden's whereabouts, as well as about the strength and the resources of the Taliban.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, countered claims yesterday that Saudi Arabia had not been co-operating with America,saying it was offering military assistance. His comments came despite the rejection by Saudi Arabia of a US request to use its air bases for a military offensive.