By Ted Anthony
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Maybe he’s dead, either from U.S. bombing, gunfire from his own men – or even, as one newspaper reported today, from cancer. Maybe he’s holed up deep in a mountain cave or hiding in a fortified Pakistan border village. Or perhaps he’s in Chechnya, Somalia or back home in Saudi Arabia.
Rumors have multiplied over the fate of the world’s most-wanted fugitive, Osama bin Laden, who seems to have vanished into the mountain mists.
“I don’t know where he is,” Afghanistan’s new prime minister, Hamid Karzai, today. “We receive reports now and then that he may be here or there.”
These days, that’s about the most restrained answer you’ll get. Rare is the person or organization unwilling to speculate.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in China a few days ago that he was “reasonably sure” bin Laden was dead, killed by American bombardments in one of the network of caves at Tora Bora.
“There is a great possibility that he may have lost his life there,” Musharraf said. He didn’t elaborate.
And from others come myriad theories, few substantiated by anything but repetition:
_That bin Laden had his own men shoot him – and martyr him – as American forces closed in. An Islamabad newspaper, Al-Akhbar, among others, offered that account last week, quoting Afghans recently arrived from Kandahar.
_That he managed to make it to Chechnya, Somalia or even his native Saudi Arabia, where sympathetic forces are safeguarding him. Some of those rumors, circulating for weeks, put him on the run with his close ally, deposed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
_That he died of natural causes. The Daily Dopahr, a small Islamabad newspaper, offered that astonishing theory today. “Osama has died,” it said, attributing the demise to “kidney and stomach cancer.” Citing no sources, it said he died in the mountains of Tora Bora and was buried there by 30 trusted advisers and bodyguards.
In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, regional anti-Taliban commanders are convinced bin Laden fled the Tora Bora cave complex near the border with Pakistan. But they admit their theories are just that – speculation.
Al-Qaida prisoners and anti-Taliban intelligence officers have said bin Laden was hiding among the caves in eastern Afghanistan’s White Mountains as recently as Dec. 4, two days after the siege of Tora Bora began. Other reports around that time – later called into question – said two-way radio traffic referred to “the sheik” being safe in Tora Bora.
Many eastern commanders think bin Laden sneaked across the snow-packed mountains to escape their attack and is now hiding in Pakistan. Rumors range from vague sightings in remote villages to detailed accounts of him joining Pakistani nomads and riding south toward the sea.
U.S. forces have hardly given up the hunt. Though Kenton Keith, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said it was “quite possible” that bin Laden was dead, President Bush said the leader of al-Qaida would be found even if he “tried to slither out.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Bush said over the weekend. “But I can tell you this – we’re going to find him.”
Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, agreed, saying forces will sift through rubble and rumor until they get their man.
” (We will) go through each of these areas until we satisfy ourselves that he is there and dead,” Franks said Tuesday. “We’ll find out about it.”
Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.