Where is Osama? Nobody is saying

Monday, December 10, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Where is Osama bin Laden? That's the $25 million question today in Afghanistan.

That question has the new prime minister recruiting southern villagers to search for foreigners. It has U.S. Marines setting up roadblocks around Kandahar. It has U.S. jets pummeling the cave complexes in the east, and tribal fighters waiting to move in.

But the bottom line, for now, is that nobody seems to know where bin Laden is for sure. All sorts of rumors abound.

In Washington, the leading theory seems to be that bin Laden is hidden around the caves of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan.

Vice President Cheney says that he has intelligence reports indicating that's the case.

In Kabul, the Afghan capital, few are convinced that bin Laden is really in Tora Bora.

"No one knows for sure, but why would he go to the one place where everyone will look for him?" asked a Western intelligence official.

The official said bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, may have been taken to Tora Bora after he was hurt in U.S. bombing raids on an al-Qaida base at Darunta in eastern Afghanistan. But he doubts bin Laden was with him.

U.S. warplanes have been bombing intensively in the Tora Bora region, trying to soften up al-Qaida fighters holed up in the caves and allow an advance by anti-Taliban Afghan fighters. At the same time, U.S. Marines are searching roads in the south around the city of Kandahar, another region seen as a possible bin Laden hiding place.

The United States also offered a $25 million reward for the capture of bin Laden, the main suspect for the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.

Appeal to villagers

Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, appealed for the help of villagers in the area of Kandahar -- which the Taliban surrendered on Friday -- and neighboring Helmand province to arrest anyone who resembles an Arab warrior that could be linked to bin Laden.

But Karzai said Sunday he still has "no idea" about bin Laden's whereabouts. The interim government's foreign minister, Abdullah, said this week that he thought bin Laden is in the south.

The Taliban's former intelligence chief, Mohammed Khaqzar, speculates that bin Laden left Kandahar heading northwest, toward Islam Dara and then to Bagran in neighboring Helmand province.

"From there he can get into the mountains where he could stay for two years without ever having to leave them," he said. "These mountains go all the way to Bamiyan" in central Afghanistan.

From the Bamiyan mountains, bin Laden could escape farther north into Turkmenistan. With luck, he could make it all the way to Chechnya, a leading source of recruits for al-Qaida.

Bin Laden is believed to have traveled twice to Chechnya since he made Afghanistan his home in 1996.

Others say bin Laden could head for Somalia because of its lawlessness; Iraq because of Saddam Hussein's battle with the West; or among the northern hill tribes of Yemen, where bin Laden's family roots are.

But Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says those possibilities are remote.

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