Pakistan offers more help in bin Laden hunt

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan has agreed to step up cooperation with the CIA in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which is now centering on the rugged mountains along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence officials said Tuesday.

The agreement followed weekend meetings with CIA Director George Tenet, who also urged Pakistan to crack down on religious schools seen as training grounds for Islamic militants. U.S. officials confirmed Tenet's visit, but refused to discuss the content of his meetings.

Pakistani intelligence officials said Pakistani officials, including President Pervez Musharraf, told Tenet their government would enhance cooperation with the CIA, joining the hunt for bin Laden and giving American spies access to seven arrested members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

In return, Tenet said the United States would provide surveillance equipment, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan's intelligence agents, many of whom are of the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the country's border with Afghanistan, have a larger presence in Afghanistan than anyone else. The United States considers their cooperation essential in tracking down bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network.

Despite Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, only a few of the country's Inter-Service Intelligence agents have been sharing information with their CIA counterparts. The agency's director, Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq, told Tenet that would change, the officials said.

Haq told Tenet his agency would join the hunt for bin Laden -- possibly in joint operations with the CIA -- and would increase security along the border to prevent the terrorist suspect from fleeing, they said.

Haq also assured Tenet he would have access to seven men in Pakistani custody who have confessed to membership in al-Qaida and to two retired nuclear scientists detained for their ties to bin Laden, the officials said.

So far, neither the Pakistanis nor the Americans have specific information about the whereabouts of bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, they said.

According to the officials, the last known whereabouts of bin Laden were in the Kabul area before the Afghan capital fell last month. His wives and children were later spotted in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, but spies lost track of them after that.

Tenet asked Musharraf to crack down on Islamic schools involved in terrorism. Some 640,000 students are in Pakistan's 17,000 Islamic schools. Thousands of those students went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, and most of the Taliban leadership emerged from Pakistani religious schools.

The officials said Musharraf agreed, but will do so in phases to avoid resistance by the nation's Islamic leaders. The first phase, they said, would be to expel foreign students without proper visas.

Pakistan passed a law aimed at pressuring those schools to adopt modern subjects, including science, computers, English and math. Most teach only Islamic subjects. The government also said it would cut funding to those schools deemed to breed extremism and violence.

The law was enacted in August, even before the terrorist attacks in the United States and the military campaign against Afghanistan. But the Taliban's virtual defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition has emboldened officials to push on with the plan.

In the early days of the war, Islamic activists staged large, often bloody demonstrations across Pakistan to protest the country's support of the United States. Before Sept. 11, Pakistan had been Afghanistan's closest ally.

But the demonstrations have gotten smaller as the Taliban have retreated from most of the country and the Islamic leaders have lost clout.