Bush promises to pursue bin Laden to the end

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The Independent Online

The American President George Bush poured scorn on Osama bin Laden yesterday, and despite calls from the new Afghan government for a quick end to the bombing made clear that the United States would hunt for the al-Qa'ida leader for as long as it took to find him.

In a voice dripping with sarcasm, Mr Bush described Mr bin Laden as a man on the run who in just three months had swapped control of a country for control of a cave.

Making his first public comments since Christmas, when a new videotape set off reports that Mr bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan, Mr Bush said the Saudi-born militant's main achievement was to be on the losing side of a rout.

Yesterday the Afghan Defence Minister, General Mohammad Fahim, added his voice to others by saying that Mr bin Laden was in Pakistan. He said: "After fleeing from Tora Bora [in eastern Afghanistan], there is a strong probability Osama is in Peshawar."

The mountainous Tora Bora region was thought to be the last redoubt of Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network before they were blasted from the region's myriad caves by US bombing.

General Fahim said there would be no need for US bombing once a few remaining border areas had been cleared of final resistance. Earlier, his spokesman said this would take no more than three days after which the bombing must stop. But the Pentagon said it had received no request to stop the bombing, and declined to make such a promise. Mr Bush and his commander in charge of the Afghan operation, General Tommy Franks, said they were keeping all their options open.

Mr Bush said: "We don't know whether [Mr Bin Laden] is in a cave with the door shut, or a cave with the door open. We just don't know. There's all kinds of reports and all kinds of speculation. But one thing is for certain: he's on the losing side of a rout."

Speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with General Franks at his side, Mr Bush said he expected American forces to remain in Afghanistan "for quite a long period of time", as long as General Franks said was necessary.

General Franks added: "I think that it's best for all of us to recognise that we will not be hurried. We will not be pressed into doing something that does not represent our national objectives, and we will take as long as it takes."

Mr Bush also rejected any suggestion that Mr bin Laden was no longer in a position to mastermind another attack on the US or its allies, saying intelligence reports showed that al-Qa'ida could strike again.

"I hope 2002 is a year of peace, but I'm also realistic," he said. "And I know full well that bin Laden and his cronies would like to harm America again ... How do I know that? I receive intelligence reports on a daily basis that indicates that that's his desires."

In Pakistan, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, the head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam party, which helped create the Taliban, denied claims from Kabul that he was protecting Mr bin Laden and called it a ruse to divert the American campaign away from Afghanistan.

Pakistan's government faced unrest after it put Mr Rehman under house arrest when the US bombing began on 7 October, but now has graver problems to deal with over Kashmir. Washington fears Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, could switch forces from the Afghan to the Indian border, making it easier for Mr bin Laden or his followers to escape. The US has been pulling diplomatic strings and urging the nuclear rivals to step back from a standoff triggered by a suicide attack on India's parliament earlier this month. Mr Bush said that the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had spoken to both countries yesterday, urging calm.

Mr bin Laden taunted his American adversary by video. In the film, probably shot in early December, the millionaire militant called the 11 September attacks blessed and urged Muslims to wage military and economic holy war against a fragile America. "It is very important to concentrate on hitting the American economy with every available tool ... The economy is the base of its military power," said a gaunt, Mr bin Laden.

"The end of the United States is imminent," he said in the tape aired in full for the first time on Thursday on Qatar's al-Jazeera television.

Washington said on Thursday that in the first strike in three days its planes had destroyed a compound used by Taliban south-west of Kabul. A Pakistan-based news agency said 25 villagers were killed by bombs in the same vicinity.

¿ The Ministry of Defence denied a claim by General Fahim, the Afghan Defence Minister, last night that an agreement had been reached with the Afghan government to limit the foreign force to 3,000.

A UN Security Council mandate allowed as many troops as were considered necessary to be sent to Afghanistan, said a spokeswoman. This is likely to be 3,000 to 5,000.

Major General John McColl, the head of the International Security and Assistance Force, is close to finalising the Security Assistance Agreement that would lay out the duties and jurisdiction of the foreign troops but not the numbers, she said.