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Us ignores binladen death reports { December 26 2001 }

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U.S. Ignores bin Laden Death Reports, Continues Search Wires
Wednesday, December 26, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden continues to be the target of an upcoming search by U.S. Marines in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan though a Pakistani newspaper reported Tuesday that the suspected terrorist mastermind is dead.

CNN quoted officials as saying Marines would move into the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan to search for bin Laden. The U.S. bombing of the area had subsided, they said. Special Forces troops familiar with the area were to accompany the Marines, CNN said.

The comments came as the Pakistan Observer newspaper reported that bin Laden died of a serious lung disease in the Tora Bora Mountains earlier this month.

The report quoted an unnamed Taliban official who said he attended bin Laden's "low-key funeral." The source said bin Laden, who suffered from serious lung ailments, died for lack of proper medical care.

"The United States will never be able to fulfill its cherished goal of getting Osama dead or alive," the Taliban official said. "Bin Laden died a peaceful, natural death in mid-December and was not killed by U.S. bullets or their bombs."

He said bin Laden was laid to rest with military honors with about 30 close al-Qaeda associates and Taliban friends attending the funeral. "They included his most trusted bodyguards, family members and some Afghan friends," he said.

As his body was lowered into the grave, his bodyguards fired a volley of bullets into the air as a mark of respect, the official said. "Bin Laden was satisfied that he was not dying in vain," he said. "He felt that he had succeeded in making Muslims aware of the hegenomistic designs and conspiracies of pagans against Islam."

Asked whether he could point out bin Laden's grave, the Taliban official said: "I am sure that like other places in Tora Bora that particular place too must have been bombed" beyond recognition by U.S. warplanes.

U.S. officials in Islamabad, Pakistan, said they would try to verify the report but it will not affect the U.S.-led search operation for the world's most wanted man.

The report follows similar statements made by Pakistani and U.S. officials who said bin Laden may have been killed in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Afghanistan.

On Monday, Kenton Keith, the official spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said it is likely that "bin Laden might have been killed in intense U.S. bombings of his Tora Bora cave-complex."

A day earlier, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had also expressed the possibility of "bin Laden having died in U.S. airstrikes." Earlier media reports said bin Laden had crossed over into Afghanistan.

The United States maintains bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington that killed some 3,000 people. The Taliban militia, which controlled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, refused to hand over bin Laden to the United States. In response, the United States began bombing the country and eventually helped a group of anti-Taliban forces defeat the militia.

Several Taliban fighters and members of bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization have been captured since then.

An FBI team arrived in the northern Pakistani town of Kohat Tuesday to interrogate dozens of al-Qaeda prisoners. Officials in Islamabad told United Press International Pakistani commandos had been dispatched to Kohat to facilitate the investigation.

Headed by a brigadier general, the team will also be responsible for the protection of U.S. officials in an area populated by ethnic Pashtuns, who have tribal affiliations with many in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.

Pakistani newspapers reported that the FBI already had field units in the nearby provincial headquarters of Peshawar and in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Kohat residents told reporters the commandos dug bunkers around the prison where the al-Qaeda members were being held to resist any rescue attempt.

Last week, some al-Qaeda prisoners escaped after killing 10 Pakistani guards while being brought to Peshawar from a border town. At least 10 prisoners were also killed in the encounter. The fugitives were later arrested.

Army troops were guarding road links from Kohat to other Pakistani cities and to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, U.S. allies arrested an Afghan commander accused of helping al-Qaeda forces. A spokesman for the ruling council of eastern Afghanistan told the Afghan Islamic Press news agency that Commander "Awal Gul is suspected of cooperating with and aiding al-Qaeda forces."

Gul is a mid-level commander who played a key role in persuading Taliban commanders to surrender Nangarhar province to a council of tribal leaders, said Mohammed Zaman, the province's defense chief.

In another development, Turkey said Tuesday it wanted to lead the international security force in Afghanistan after Britain completes a three-month term.

"We are definitely warm" on taking over the command of the International Security Assistance Force from Britain, an aide to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said in Ankara.

In Beijing, Chinese officials said Tuesday they would host a meeting of regional foreign ministers for talks on Afghanistan. Foreign ministers from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were expected to attend the meeting in Beijing on Jan. 7, officials said.

The meeting would "address the struggle against religious extremism, separatism and terrorism in each of these states as well," Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.

In Islamabad, officials at the Ministry for Refugees and Frontier Regions said Pakistan was expected to sign a formal agreement with Afghanistan soon for the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

They said the agreement may be signed when Afghanistan's new interim ruler, Hamid Karzai, visits Pakistan early next year. Karzai had lived in Pakistan for more than two decades before moving back to Afghanistan in early October to engineer an uprising against the Taliban.

Pakistani officials said the repatriation would be carried out in phases during a six-month period. More than 3 million Afghan refugees are scattered across Pakistan.

In the first phase, Pakistan expects those living near the border in its Northwest Frontier Province and in Baluchistan to return.

Pakistani officials said Northern Alliance supporters had already started returning home after the collapse of the Taliban in Kabul on Nov. 13.

"Others will follow them if the new government succeeds in maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan," said a Pakistani official.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is working with Pakistan and Afghanistan to facilitate repatriation.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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