Terror chief bin Laden warns US

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Suspected Islamic terror chief Osama bin Laden has warned the United States against attacking his home in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of the USS Cole.

Suspected Islamic terror chief Osama bin Laden has warned the United States against attacking his home in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of the USS Cole.

In his first statement since December 1998, bin Laden said in a newspaper that an attack would not kill him and vowed to fight on against the "enemies of Islam" - an apparent reference to the United States, Israel and the Saudi royal family.

He made no direct reference to the Yemen attack.

His statement came as the US Navy confirmed it had recovered the bodies of seven of the missing 12 sailors from the Cole. The search is continuing for the remaining five thought to be trapped inside.

In all, 17 sailors were killed in what US officials believe was a terrorist suicide attack on the Cole last Thursday while it was refueling in Aden.

Suspicion for the suicide bombing last week that damaged a US Navy vessel in Yemen immediately fell on bin Laden and his organization, al Qaida. No credible claims have emerged for the attack on the USS Cole.

Officials in Afghanistan have warned of a possible US retaliatory attack against their country, where bin Laden lives, and newspapers in neighboring Pakistan have carried daily stories about such a strike.

"The dream to kill me will never be completed," bin Laden said in his statement, published in Pakistan's largest circulation Urdu-language newspaper, The Jang, meaning War.

"I am not afraid of the American threats against me," he said. "As long as I am alive there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam. I will continue my mission against them."

Although there are no apparent signs Washington is planning a strike against Afghanistan, people there remember August 1998, when the United States fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles on eastern Afghanistan in an attempt to kill bin Laden.

That assault was in retaliation to the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people. Washington blamed bin Laden for the attacks.

Since then, the United States has been trying to capture bin Laden.

A US grand jury indicted the Saudi dissident in connection with the East African bombings, but the Taliban, Afghanistan's hard-line Muslim rulers, have refused to hand him over, saying Washington has not provided proof of his guilt and that it is against Afghan tradition to hand over a guest to his enemies.

Bin Laden's statement was apparently issued from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's headquarters. The statement was received by the private news agency Asian News Network, based in Pakistan.

"We won't divulge how we acquired the statement," said Kafil, a correspondent of the news agency.

Even the Taliban, who have denied bin Laden's involvement in the Yemen attack, seemed concerned about a possible US strike.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban spokesman and information minister, Qadratullah Jamal, warned the United States against attacking.

"There is no reason for the United States to hurt the innocent people of Afghanistan," Jamal said.

"After 20 years of war we want only to have an Islamic system for our people. We should not be the target of the United States," he said. "They should not have attacked us before and they should not attack us now."

The Taliban's embassy in Pakistan denied bin Laden issued any statement, saying he has no way of getting a message out because all means of communications have been denied him.

"Osama has issued no statement and a statement attributed to him . . . is totally baseless," said Suhail Shaheen of the Afghan embassy in Pakistan.

Five bodies were recovered from the Cole last week and flown back to the United States.

Two others had been spotted aboard the ship last week but could not be removed due to the extreme damage caused by the bomb. In addition, there were 10 whom the Navy presumed had been killed but could not be found.

Over the weekend, the Navy sent a 22-member team of specialists with 10 tons of equipment to cut through the twisted steel inside the ship and find the sailors who were listed as missing.

Navy officials said they knew approximately where the bodies were but could not reach them because of the extensive damage.

A memorial service for victims of the bombing is scheduled for tomorrow at Norfolk Naval Station, the Cole's home port in Virginia.

The presumed final death count of 17 makes this the worst terrorist attack on the American military since a truck bomb ripped through a US Air Force housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996, killing 19 troops.

Four US sailors seriously injured in the apparent suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen have flown home, leaving behind two critically ill shipmates.

The four - three men and one woman - arrived on an army bus and were carried on stretchers onto a C-141 transport plane. One man gave a thumbs-up to watching reporters.

Medical staff and eight family members also travelled with the injured.

The plane took off just after 11.30am and headed for the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. The sailors had received treatment at the US military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in western Germany since their arrival Saturday.

"The whole idea is to get them out of here so they can be with their shipmates" for a memorial service for the 17 sailors who died in the attack, said Rear Admiral Stanley W Bryant, the deputy commander in chief of the US naval forces in Europe.

Col James Rundell, Landstuhl's deputy director, said the main injuries were bone fractures and all four were on pain medication. Most underwent surgery earlier this week.

"They are in good spirits. They are good and stable to travel," he said.

In a statement, the families thanked the military community for its support for the injured sailors and also thanked the shipmates who rescued the injured from the wreckage following the explosion.

"Without their heroic action our loved ones might not be with us today," the families said.

Addressing the Cole sailors directly they said: "You are truly American heroes. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families of those who were injured or lost."

The first 33 injured sailors traveled home on Sunday, but six were considered too ill to travel.

Two sailors are now left at Landstuhl - a man with multiple injuries and a woman who received 14 percent burns, mostly to her face and hands.

Rundell said the woman would likely be transferred in 4-7 days, while the man would have to stay for at least 10 days. They and their families will be able to follow the memorial ceremony on a video conferencing system in their hospital rooms.

Work continues to find the other five in the wreckage of twisted metal. The explosion tore a 40-by-40-foot hole in the side of the destroyer.