updated 9/11/2004 1:33:49 PM ET 2004-09-11T17:33:49

Three years after the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, the military does not have a fix on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, but they are believed to still be issuing the orders for al-Qaida attacks, a top American commander told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Maj. Gen. Eric Olson also said that an al-Qaida linked group was suspected of being behind a deadly car bombing at a U.S. security firm in the Afghan capital last month. He said it was a suicide attack.

"There are senior leaders of al-Qaida that are working through operatives in Afghanistan," Olson said in an interview. "They are involved in planning and in some cases directing attacks inside of Afghanistan."

Olson, the operational commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said the military did not know where bin Laden or al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri are located. But the involvement of well-trained foreign fighters in attacks near the Pakistani border convinced him that the fugitive leaders were pulling the strings.

"What we see are their techniques and their tactics here in Afghanistan, so I think it is reasonable to assume that the senior leaders are involved in directing those operations," he said.

Olson, a native of New York City, spoke to the AP after a ceremony at the main American base north of Kabul to mark the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

About 300 soldiers from the 18,000-strong coalition force gathered in a dusty tent to hear readings from the Bible and the Quran, patriotic songs and speeches reminding them of their mission.

Several wept as they watched videos of how the hijacked jetliners felled the World Trade Center towers in New York and devastated a wing of the Pentagon.

"We're here to prevent future ceremonies, future Sept. 11s," said Maj. Andy Preston, an infantryman from Edmond, Okla., who was working at the Pentagon when it was hit.

Operation Enduring Freedom quickly ousted the government of the hardline Taliban movement and scattered the al-Qaida fighters and leaders it had harbored.

Still, the Taliban has regrouped and sustained an insurgency across the south and east of the country, which Olson said was supported also by foreign fighters.

Olson said some militants attacking U.S. forces along the Pakistani border with mortars and rockets expertly adjust their aim _ betraying a high level of training not commonly seen among Taliban fighters.

Arabs, Saudis and Yemenis were among fighters recently detected in parts of southern Kandahar province as well as the former al-Qaida stronghold of Khost, he said.

An Aug. 26 car bomb which killed about 10 people, including three Americans, at the office of a firm providing bodyguards for President Hamid Karzai was the work of a suicide attacker, Olson said.

"We've even tied it to a group that has ties to al-Qaida. It could be a splinter group of some sort," he said.

The group had members in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Olson said, but he declined to name it.

Pakistan has reacted angrily to accusations from Afghan and American officials that it is not doing enough to prevent cross-border attacks, also by followers of renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The Pakistani army has carried out a string of bloody raids, including operations this week it said killed some 60 suspected fighters _ mostly foreigners _ in a tribal region believed to be a possible hide-out for bin Laden.

Olson praised the "very successful" Pakistani operations, but acknowledged that only political and economic developments in Afghanistan could defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan.

American and Afghan officials have predicted that militant attacks which have already killed aid workers and government officials as well as hundreds of combatants this year will intensify with the approach of Oct. 9 presidential elections.

"I don't think we're close at all" to defeating the insurgents, Olson said, but insisted that organizing a successful vote could convince many opponents to give up the fight.

He said six key Hekmatyar allies and a group of senior Taliban had recently indicated their willingness to "come over" to the government side _ a goal long-sought by Karzai.

Observers say a successful vote, which Karzai is expected to win, could help cement the country's painstaking political and economic recovery after more than two decades of war.

"That makes a very powerful statement," said Olson. "They'll want to join rather than fight."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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