ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf expressed doubt Monday that Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan, saying it would be "almost impossible" for him to have escaped detection here.
"I can't say for sure whether he is dead or alive," Musharraf told a news conference. But "one thing I am certain about is that he can't be in Pakistan."
Musharraf, speaking after a meeting with Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said that if bin Laden were alive he would be traveling with a large group of supporters for security, and that such a group would be easy to spot.
For "a large body of people, it is not possible to have sanctuary in Pakistan," Musharraf said.
"He cannot be hiding in one small corner of Pakistan ... remaining there without being found is almost impossible."
Musharraf's remarks come one day after the government made a public appeal for help in hunting down terrorists, in a statement which featured photographs of bin Laden and 17 other al-Qaida figures. The statement did not say whether bin Laden was believed to be in Pakistan.
Mursharraf's comments also come after last Wednesday's gunbattle between Pakistani troops and suspected al-Qaida fugitives holed up in the tribal belt along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Ten Pakistani soldiers were killed, officials said. Two al-Qaida fighters were killed and one captured.
More than 3,000 Pakistani troops are searching for about 40 al-Qaida suspects who escaped the four-hour clash near Wana, about 190 miles west of Islamabad. At least 20 people have been detained so far.
Pakistan has stepped up efforts to capture al-Qaida and Taliban members fleeing Afghanistan and has deployed troops into the frontier region, a rugged, mountainous area under the control of local leaders rather than the central government in Islamabad.
U.S. and British troops are scouring the mountains on the Afghan side looking for hide-outs. They have found numerous weapons caches, but few fighters. Officials have estimated recently that up to 1,000 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters may be in the frontier region.
Angry over army raids
Pakistan's army is in the area with the consent of tribal leaders, but some conservative religious leaders have been angered at raids carried out in the search for the al-Qaida suspects.
Maulana Fazle ur-Rehman, chief of the fundamentalist group Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, on Monday warned of "riots and civil disobedience" in the tribal areas if the military operation was expanded.
Pakistani officials say more than 300 people have been picked up after sneaking across the border to escape U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
The highest profile figure was Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's chief lieutenant who was arrested in March at a hide-out in the eastern city of Faisalabad.
A statement issued Sunday by the Home Ministry listed 18 al-Qaida members including bin Laden and chief deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and called them "dangerous religious terrorists."