updated 6/16/2005 8:42:25 AM ET 2005-06-16T12:42:25

Osama bin Laden and fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar are not believed to be in Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday, a day after a purported commander of the rebel group said the pair are alive and well.

Despite the failure to catch bin Laden since the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalilzad said “a lot of progress” has been made in fighting his al-Qaida terror network.

“Mullah Omar is not in Afghanistan. I do not believe that Osama is in Afghanistan,” the outgoing U.S. ambassador Afghanistan said at a news conference in Kabul. He did not say where the two were believed to be hiding.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said the fugitive al-Qaida leader is thought to be some place in the rugged mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“It is not an easy job to find one person, maybe with some (people) helping him ... in a vast region,” he said. “It requires timely intelligence.”

It was not clear how much control bin Laden still has over al-Qaida, Khalilzad said.

“Significant numbers of the leaders of al-Qaida have been captured. Their network has been disrupted ... the financial network has also been disrupted,” he said.

Khalilzad added that the capture of bin Laden was symbolically very important, and “sooner or later I believe firmly that he will be caught.”

Neighbor's role
Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said during a visit to Australia this week that his government doesn’t “have a clear idea” where bin Laden is hiding. He claimed on Thursday that his security forces have “broken the back” of al-Qaida in Pakistan.

Khalilzad said catching bin Laden and Omar required the cooperation of several governments, which, he added, should not allow militants to use their territory for “propaganda purposes against Afghanistan.”

The comments appeared to be a veiled criticism of Pakistan. On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Geo television broadcast an interview with a man it identified as Taliban military commander Mullah Akhtar Usmani, a former Afghan aviation minister, who said bin Laden was “absolutely fine.” He would not specify where bin Laden was hiding.

Pakistani officials declined to comment Thursday on Khalilzad’s remarks.

In the video, a black turban shielded the man’s face, making it impossible to recognize him or verify his identity. An AK-47 rifle was propped next to him as he spoke.

The man said the Taliban are still organized and its senior leaders hold regular consultations. “Our discipline is strong. We have regular meetings. We make programs,” he said.

He said Omar does not attend the meetings, but “decisions come from his side.” He did not say where those meetings are held.

Geo said the interview was recorded last week. A senior journalist at the independent station said it was conducted near the Afghan town of Spinboldak, near the Pakistani border.

Gen. Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said Thursday that the interview was “not serious” and wouldn’t help the rebels. He questioned why the man claiming to be Usmani was afraid to show his face, though he stopped short of questioning his identity.

“He was just saying the same thing as usual,” Azimi said. “This doesn’t make any difference in terms of improving their military or political situation.”

A U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in late 2001. The offensive was launched after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, which bin Laden is accused of orchestrating.

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