US troops to track down Bin Laden

SPECULATION ROSE last night that the United States was planning a military operation against Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile whom it blames for last year's African embassy bombings.

A television station in the Gulf state of Qatar reported that US aircraft had landed in Pakistan with commandos for a mission against Mr bin Laden, who is believed to be in neighbouring Afghanistan. The US discounted the reports, but there has been increasing speculation in the past week that Washington would strike against Mr bin Laden around the time of the bombing anniversary.

Bombs at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August last year killed and wounded hundreds. The US blamed Mr bin Laden, issued an indictment against him and put a $5m (pounds 3.12m) price on his head, but it has yet to find him. It has asked the Taliban, which controls much of Afghanistan and is said to be sheltering him, to extradite Mr bin Laden, but they have refused.

Al-Jazeerah television reported yesterday military aircraft carrying dozens of commandos had landed at Islamabad airport and another neighbouring airfield. "This is an inaccurate report and should not be taken seriously," said David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.

The broadcast cited "informed Pakistani sources" for the report. "The sources said Pakistani officers and the personnel of the two air bases were banned from coming close to the two aircraft, which, it is believed, would probably take part in striking Afghan targets," it said. "The sources confirmed the arrival of scores of US commandos to Islamabad. It is believed that they will take part in such an operation." The report added that the US embassy in Islamabad had secretly been evacuating dependents of diplomatic personnel.

At the weekend, the Republican Senator Orrin Hatch hinted at the possibility of an operation against Mr bin Laden. "The CIA, FBI and others are right on top of it. We know where he is, we know what his activities are, and we've just got to stay ever alert. This menace has got to end someday, and I think we'll find some way of doing that," he said. "Ultimately, we're going to get him."

There were reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan last week that American troops were mobilising in the area, and that Mr bin Laden was preparing to move. "Osama has decided to leave Afghanistan because of fears of expected attacks from the US and also because of how much more Afghanistan can suffer because of him," said the Afghanistan Islamic Press, a news agency. The Taliban government later denied this.

The US responded to the embassy bombings with missile attacks against what it said were terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan. But the owner of the plant which was hit in Khartoum said it was a pharmaceutical factory. America has yet to produce any evidence to the contrary. The US has also arrested several people for knowledge of the bombings, though none have come to trial. Although America has released some of the details of the evidence against them and against Mr bin Laden, there is nothing publicly available to directly link Mr bin Laden to any attacks.

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