Afghan official - Bin Laden believed hiding out in Pakistan

Thursday, December 27, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Osama bin Laden is believed to be in a border area of Pakistan with "friends" of a Pakistani religious party leader, an official in Afghanistan's new interim government said Thursday.

Mohammad Abeel, spokesman for Afghan defense ministry, said they were associates of Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party. He did not elaborate or divulge the source of his information.

The party is sympathetic to Afghanistan's deposed Taliban militia. Its main support base is parts of Pakistan's North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, both of which border Afghanistan.

It helped orchestrate some of the largest pro-Taliban protests in Pakistan after U.S. airstrikes began in Afghanistan in October.

Riaz Durrani, central information secretary for Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, rejected the report about bin Laden as "baseless."

"We support the Taliban, but never had any connection with Osama bin Laden," he said. "Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman is under detention for the last three months. How can he or his party do this?"

He added: "It is part of an international conspiracy to attack Pakistan under the pretext of action against religious organizations."

Another well-known figure in Pakistan religious politics, Fazal ur-Rehman Khalil, is a leader of Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, which follows the same school of thought as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam but is more militant and is fighting for Indian Kashmir's merger with Pakistan.

His group also is connected with the Taliban. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful Thursday night, because he has been in hiding since October to avoid arrest. Harkat ul-Mujahedeen has been banned and classified by the United States as a terrorist organization.

Last week in China, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he was "reasonably sure" that bin Laden had not escaped to Pakistan and said there was a "great possibility" the al-Qaida leader was dead.

"He's not in Pakistan, of that we are reasonably sure. But we can't be 100 percent sure. We have sealed the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Musharraf said.

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