U.S. officials deny report bin Laden's sons wounded

Saturday, March 8, 2003

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A top Pakistani provincial police official said Friday that a U.S.-led raid in southwestern Afghanistan killed seven al-Qaida men and wounded eight others -- including two sons of Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials disputed the report.

Sanaullah Zehri, home minister of Baluchistan province and the region's top security official, said the allied raid occurred near Rabat, an area where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan converge.

He said on Pakistani television and told The Associated Press that bin Laden's sons Saad and Hamza were captured and were in the hospital in Rabat being treated for wounds.

After reports of the raid were challenged by U.S., Afghan and Pakistani officials, Zehri told AP, "I am getting my information from my sources and this is what I have heard." Zehri, who spoke by telephone from Quetta, the Baluchistan provincial capital, said no Pakistani forces were involved in the raid.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer played down the claims, saying: "We have no information to substantiate that report."

Col. Roger King, a U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base, said he could not confirm reports about bin Laden's sons and denied U.S. and other coalition forces were involved in any operation in Rabat.

"As far as I know there is no involvement of any forces belonging to CJTF-180," King told AP.

"As far as I know we don't have anybody operating in that vicinity." CJTF-180 is the military acronym for coalition joint forces in Afghanistan.

In Washington, U.S. counterterrorism officials strongly disputed the reports. They said they had no information to suggest the sons had been detained.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Daoud, said he was unaware of a Rabat operation. "We have no information on this," he said in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

However, Nafaas Khan, deputy inspector of police in Afghanistan's Nimroz province where Rabat is located, said U.S. helicopters were seen over the town Friday. He said he had no information about bin Laden's sons.

Pakistani journalists who tried to get to Rabat on Friday were stopped by Pakistani security officers at Noshgi, about 240 miles from Rabat. One Pakistani journalist quoted an Afghan security official just returned from Rabat as confirming that Saad bin Laden had been caught up in the operation, but said he had no information about a second son.

Zehri said the Baluchistan provincial government sealed its borders with Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaida members escaping into Pakistan.

Searches for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida operatives have intensified since the capture last weekend of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected No. 3 man in al-Qaida and planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pakistani intelligence and security officials say joint U.S. and Pakistani forces have been scouring Baluchistan province, chasing down leads from Mohammed. There were also reports of search missions being conducted in northwestern Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan to flush out al-Qaida.

Saad bin Laden, believed to be 23 years old and Osama bin Laden's eldest son, is also on the American most-wanted list and has been called a rising star in the terror network. Osama bin Laden is believed to have as many as 23 sons by several wives.


AP Correspondent Sadaqat Jan contributed to this report.

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