U.S. widens hunt for bin Laden

Los Angeles Times And Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies have expanded their search for Osama bin Laden into western Pakistan, using spy satellites and other high-flying intelligence-gathering aircraft in the attempt to find the elusive terrorist leader, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The widening hunt comes amid conflicting and unconfirmed reports that bin Laden may have fled Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence officials warned that while they haven’t verified any of the alleged sightings of bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan in recent weeks, reports that he has escaped may be a ruse to mislead U.S. forces.

Pakistan has deployed thousands of military and paramilitary troops, backed by helicopter gunships and observation aircraft, along its rugged western border with Afghanistan to stop fleeing fighters with bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

Hundreds of al-Qaida members and their families — possibly including some top commanders — escaped the U.S. onslaught at Tora Bora and reached Pakistan with the help of senior Afghan tribal leaders, two Eastern Alliance officials said Tuesday.

Many senior Taliban officials also have slipped into Pakistan, where they were being protected by Pakistani authorities, a top government official in southern Afghanistan charged.

Pakistan, a U.S. ally that has increased security along its 1,340-mile border with Afghanistan, vehemently denied both reports. In Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan called the accusations "utter nonsense" fabricated to slander his country.

U.S. officials expressed confidence that the military regime in Pakistan, which supported Afghanistan’s Taliban regime until Sept. 11, is cooperating fully in the dragnet for bin Laden and his top command.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Pakistanis have "increased the level of their vigilance in the areas that abut Afghanistan." He added, "We’re fairly confident that, if it’s possible to find people trying to slip across the border, that they’re making every effort to do so."

But the CIA has augmented the Pakistani effort, deploying pilotless Predator aircraft with high-resolution cameras over suspected hideouts in the region. Military Global Hawk drones gathered electronic intelligence from a higher altitude.

Bombers and strike aircraft, including B-1s and F-18s, circled over the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan near Pakistan, but for the first time in two weeks dropped no bombs as U.S. special forces and Afghan troops combed rocky valleys and rugged ridges for signs that bin Laden is either dead or alive.

Senior Bush administration officials acknowledged that bin Laden has effectively vanished for now and that it wasn’t certain if he was still alive or if he had escaped to Pakistan or elsewhere.

"We don’t know where he is now, and he could be on the run," Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, told a Pentagon news briefing.

The focus of the search Tuesday remained in the Tora Bora area, where bin Laden was believed to have hidden in one of the hundreds of caves and catacombs dug into the mountains. Many of the caves now have been sealed by U.S. bombs, while others are too unstable to enter.

"This really is very, very difficult," U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. "It’s going to be step by step, cave by cave, and to put a time limit on that would be imprudent right now."

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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