We justfailed to catch Bin Laden last year, admits Musharraf

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The Independent Online

The trail of Osama bin Laden has never been colder, despite millions of dollars worth of Pakistani and US Army resources ploughed into the hunt for the al-Qa'ida leader, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has admitted.

The trail of Osama bin Laden has never been colder, despite millions of dollars worth of Pakistani and US Army resources ploughed into the hunt for the al-Qa'ida leader, Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has admitted.

The general claimed his security forces had come close to capturing America's most wanted enemy, last summer. But since those operations in the anarchic tribal lands along the border with Afghanistan, they had lost track of his movements.

"There was a time when the dragnet had closed and we thought we knew roughly the area where he possibly could be," General Musharraf said yesterday. "That was, I think, some time back ... maybe about eight to 10 months back. But after that, this is such a game, this intelligence, that they escape. They can move and then you lose contact."

The startling admission was the first confirmation for some time from Pakistan's ruler that he believed Bin Laden had been on his soil, and has provoked heart-searching in the American military establishment over how the hunt is being conducted. The US military spends nearly $1bn (£500m), a month in Afghanistan, including CIA teams in Pakistan tribal areas and FBI investigators in the cities, and the Pakistan army has killed or arrested hundreds of al-Qa'ida operatives. Every possible tool has been used, from satellites searches to TV advertising.

General Musharraf had always tried to play down speculation that al-Qa'ida's leader was on his side of the border, perhaps fearing the political fallout at home if the symbolic capture is inside Pakistan. Yesterday that was underlined with the arrest of yet another would-be assassin after a string of failed Islamist plots on the general.

Later, Pakistani officials said privately that for months they have had no idea where Bin Laden could be and they have no information on possible planned terrorist attacks. They claimed the silence from al-Qa'ida suggests they have destroyed its network inside Pakistan. An indication of America's thoughts on the most-wanted man's whereabouts was a major TV and radio advertising campaign trying to win over possible supporters of al-Qa'ida by stressing the violence terrorists have brought to Pakistan and reminding viewers of the $25m bounty still on Bin Laden's head.

Most security experts in the region believe the Yemen-born Saudi is still in the rugged mountains between Afghan-istan and Pakistan. Waziristan, a tribal territory adjoining Khost Province in Afghanistan where many of the CIA's operatives are based, has always a likely hiding place for Bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida leaders.

Last spring and summer, Pakistan's army launched ferocious operations into the region, which has never been controlled by Islamabad, killing hundreds of foreign fighters and tribesmen in missions which were bitterly criticised by Musharraf's Islamist opponents at home.

The general's comments yesterday appeared to confirm the rumour that was widely circulated at the time, that Bin Laden's capture in Waziristan had been close. This would be the second time he has slipped free of a tightening noose. Bin Laden is widely believed to have escaped US and British special forces at the battle of Tora Bora inside Afghanistan at the beginning of 2002.

Since then, he has routinely taunted his hunters with videotaped messages delivered to al-Jazeera's office in Islamabad. The most recent one, calling for fresh attacks on America, popped up just before the US presidential election in November, although there was no indication where it was made.

Few in the American military believe he is still in Afghanistan, patrolled by 18,000 US troops and scoured with satellites and the latest electronic eavesdropping devices. The risk of a US combat mission unexpectedly raiding a village where he is hiding is thought too great.

Other possible hiding-places for Bin Laden have been suggested, including Pakistani Kashmir, Yemen, where he has family links, Somalia or Sudan, where he has been before.

Yesterday the new US commander in Afghanistan tried to play down the failure to find Bin Laden, stressing instead the successes of military hearts and minds policies.

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