Pakistan said Monday that there was no evidence that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was hiding in the country, and it denied that it allowed CIA agents to set up bases along the border to search for him.
Pakistani and U.S. generals agree that the trail for bin Laden has gone cold, more than three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Masood Khan, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said bin Laden had not been seen anywhere and scoffed at reports that he might be hiding in Chitral, in the scenic north.
“Osama bin Laden has not been sighted in Chitral or in any other part of Pakistan,” Khan said, adding, “There are no operations being conducted by U.S. forces inside Pakistan.”
The president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has previously acknowledged that a small number of U.S. experts were working with Pakistani troops in operations against al-Qaida militants. But he has denied that U.S. forces — deployed in neighboring Afghanistan — are actively hunting bin Laden in Pakistan.
Times report denied
A report in Monday’s New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials, said that the CIA had set up small bases along the border in late 2003 but that the operatives were being hampered by uncooperative Pakistani minders. It said the CIA had concluded that bin Laden was being sheltered by tribesmen and foreign militants in northwestern Pakistan and that he could be aiming to launch a “spectacular” attack on the United States.
The issue is a sensitive one for Musharraf, who is under pressure at home from hard-liners opposed to his strong ties with Washington.
“There are no CIA cells in Pakistan ... in our tribal areas, and there is absolutely no truth in this New York Times report,” said Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, a spokesman for the army.
Some believe bin Laden is hiding along the rugged border.
In an interview televised Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said bin Laden was “definitely” in the region, but he did not say where.
A senior Pakistani counterterrorism official said Monday that U.S. officials had not found intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts, although their information had helped nab some al-Qaida suspects in Pakistan.
“Whenever U.S. intelligence and communication experts come up with some specific information and they need our help, we organize things, act on their tips, but the operations are conducted by our own security forces,” he said on condition of anonymity.
The Times said Pakistani military officials had strictly supervised the CIA personnel at the alleged bases in Pakistan, limiting their effectiveness.
Intelligence service defended
A senior official of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency denied the report’s claim that militants in tribal regions might be getting help from some its operatives. The agency helped build the Taliban militia before Pakistan switched allegiance to support the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Earlier this month, President Bush met with Musharraf in Washington and defended Pakistan’s cooperation in the bin Laden hunt, saying its forces had been “incredibly active and very brave” in the South Waziristan tribal region, a suspected hiding place of bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The forces have killed or arrested hundreds of alleged al-Qaida sympathizers and busted terrorist training bases.
Monday, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan said he could not comment on CIA operations. He said U.S. forces were relentlessly searching for clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“No matter where he is, whether he is in Afghanistan, whether he is in Pakistan or wherever he is, I think we share President Karzai’s sentiment that some day ... he will be brought to justice,” the spokesman, Maj. Mark McCann, said at a news briefing in Kabul.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul also said she could not speak for the CIA.