Secretary of State names bin Laden as main focus

The Prime Suspect
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The Independent US

Now it is official. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, became the first senior member of the Bush administration publicly to identify the elusive Saudi-born Osama bin Laden as a prime suspect behind the terror onslaught against America.

Asked why the US was turning up the diplomatic heat on Pakistan in particular, General Powell told a news conference that Washington had not yet identified the organisation responsible for the attacks, but he added: "When you look at the list of candidates, one resides in that region." Asked if he was referring to Mr bin Laden, General Powell replied: "Yes". Finding him may be another matter, though, even for the ultra-sophisticated technology of the US.

Word from the region last night was that America's most wanted terrorist target, already suspected of being behind the two 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa and last year's attack on the USS Cole, changed his hiding place within minutes of the destruction of the World Trade Centre.

Mr bin Laden was last seen in public in February, attending the wedding of his son in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban militia. Arab nationals are reportedly leaving Kandahar, probably because they expect the city to be a focus of American retaliation.

But Mr bin laden has probably moved on. He rarely stays in one place for more than a few days, moving around the country in small convoys surrounded by bodyguards, and taking full advantage of the network of caves that honeycomb the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for shelter.

One of them, in Paktia province, is said to be a warren of caves built with the help of American money in the 1980s when Washington backed the Afghan insurgents against the Soviet invaders.

Though the Taliban has condemned the New York and Washington suicide attacks, it says it will not hand over Mr bin Laden without solid proof that he was the organiser. Its Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, said yesterday that Mr bin Laden had been deprived of communications equipment. He denied, however, that he had been placed under house arrest.

Taliban radio claimed that America was picking on Mr bin Laden simply because he was well known. "Does Osama have the planes to train pilots?" it asked. "Where did they get their training? Who trained them? From which country are they? In Afghanistan this kind of training is not possible." The American authorities now believe they are close to answering all those questions. In the meantime, Washington is turning the screws on Pakistan, one of only three countries that recognise the Taliban and supports the Islamic regime.

Mr Powell held what he termed a "good conversation" with General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President. But the diplomatic nicieties conceal some very tough talking. Pakistan, a valued US ally during the Cold War, is being told either to co-operate in bringing Mr bin Laden to justice, or risk further isolation and the end of any prospect of a resumption of aid.

Earlier, Richard Armitage, the deputy Secretary of State, summoned Pakistan's ambassador to the State Department to read her the diplomatic equivalent of the riot act. "Our message basically was, 'Are you with us or against us?'" a US official said last night. Publicly, General Musharraf has aligned Pakistan squarely with the US, but Washington is yet to be convinced this will translate into deeds.

The Taliban government, meanwhile, is warning that any missile attack would be pointless After the 1998 embassy bombings, US warships and aircraft launched 70 cruise missiles against reputed bin Laden training camps in Afghanistan, with no success.

"Killing our leaders will not help our people. There is no factory in Afghanistan that is worth the price of a single missile fired at us. It will simply increase mistrust between the people in the region and the United States."