Afghan Foreign Minister says bin Laden is still in country

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The Independent Online

Further confusion about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden was raised yesterday when the Afghan Foreign Minister said it was likely he was still hiding inside Afghanistan.

After a series of reports suggesting that Mr bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan, Abdullah Abdullah, the interim Foreign Minister, said: "I have no precise information about [Mr] bin Laden's location, but probably he is in Afghanistan."

Mr Abdullah appeared to support US President George Bush's insistence that the hunt for Mr bin Laden would continue until he was captured, dismissing demands from other elements within the interim Afghan government that the American bombing campaign should end immediately. "The campaign will continue for as long as it takes to finish off the terrorists," he said.

While the Pentagon has said capturing Mr bin Laden remains a priority, reports yesterday suggested the operation to locate him was floundering, especially with the approach of mid-winter. The New York Times reported that opposition fighters from the so-called Eastern Alliance – always less than enthusiastic about the manhunt for Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida members – were having to be coerced by the US to continue the search of the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan, thought to be the final hide-out of many of the network's fighters.

The effort to persuade the opposition fighters has become so basic that offers of cold-weather clothing and shoes are being made, along with those of weapons, ammunition and money. Most of the Afghan fighters are kitted out with little more than training shoes and a blanket or sweater, despite the freezing temperatures. "It may be that cold weather clothing is more important than money," said General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "All that is being worked [on] to solicit their co-operation."

Some reports suggested that the search of the caves will increasingly become the role of US special forces. The Pentagon is aware, however, that the local militias know the local terrain and at the same time the US is keen for local forces to be seen to be leading the hunt.

The Pentagon said yesterday that the number of Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters being interrogated by the US had risen to 150. Of those, 139 were being detained at a makeshift jail at Kandahar airport. Two others were being held in Bagram, one in Mazar-i-Sharif and a further eighton the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.

Meanwhile, the FBI is carrying out 150 separate investigations into suspected al-Qa'ida members or groups inside the US. While it was known that the hunt launched in the aftermath of 11 September for other terrorists in the US was of an unprecedented scale, yesterday's report in The Washington Post is the first to disclose the number of different inquiries.

"It runs the spectrum from one end to another," one senior US law enforcement official said of the scale of the inquiry. "We don't want to suggest that they are all al-Qa'ida terrorists."

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