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Afghanistan: Bin Laden's Whereabouts Unknown

Prague, 17 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden -- wanted by the United States on terrorism charges -- has reportedly gone missing, sparking widespread speculation about his whereabouts and his future.

U.S. authorities want bin Laden extradited to the United States to face charges of masterminding the bombings last August of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that left 274 people dead.

Afghanistan�s ruling Taliban militia had sheltered bin Laden and his followers for the past three years, calling him an honored guest. Bin Laden helped Islamic insurgents battle Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Now, however, the Taliban says it doesn�t know where bin Laden is. They say he may have left Afghanistan or that he could still be inside the country.

Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar told Taliban-run Radio Shari�a earlier this week that bin Laden had disappeared from Kandahar -- the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan -- where he had reportedly been supervising the construction of a mosque.

After a series of meetings with U.S. and British officials, the Taliban last week took away bin Laden's satellite telephone and prevented him from speaking to the media. Some analysts say bin Laden�s disappearance may be linked to that effort to muzzle him.

Despite reports of strained relations between bin Laden and the Taliban, Omar said the militia did not force bin Laden out of the country or turn him over to U.S. authorities. He said that -- had the Taliban handed over bin Laden to anybody -- it would have been a "black blemish" on the history of the Afghans.

Bin Laden, though, has few hiding places remaining, as the international community becomes increasingly unwilling to harbor suspected terrorists.

Bruce Hoffman -- a terrorism analyst for the California-based think tank the RAND corporation -- told RFE/RL that Turkey�s capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan this week bodes ill for bin Laden. He said, "Any terrorist on the run will now have to think twice about where he might find a safe haven."

Unconfirmed reports, however, say bin Laden could be heading for Iraq, Yemen, or Pakistan, where he has extensive contacts. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein offered bin Laden asylum last month.

Middle East analyst Neil Partrick of the Royal United Services Institute in London told RFE/RL that the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey has met with bin Laden.

"I think it's comparable to how many countries in the region will put out feelers to possible allies and explore connections that may be of some use in certain circumstances. I think when it comes to Iraq -- if the regime feels itself to be under enormous pressure -- then it might seek to pick up any connections with somebody like bin Laden, and use him, in fairly dire circumstances as far as the regime is concerned."

Partrick went on to say that Saddam probably doesn�t feel threatened enough at the moment by U.S. and British airstrikes to lash out through terrorism.

Other analysts have placed bin Laden in Somalia or in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, where widespread anarchy could make it safer for him to hide out. The RAND Corporation's Hoffman says bin Laden may be able to call in some favors.

"Bin Laden has reputedly provided support -- both financial and material -- to extremist Muslim groups in both Chechnya and Somalia, so it's not entirely out of the question that he should seek some kind of quid pro quo, or gain access to some sort of favor to stay there."

U.S. officials say they believe bin Laden hasn�t left Afghanistan at all and that the Taliban knows where he's hiding. Bin Laden's whereabouts are expected to be the focus of a meeting today in Washington between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth and the Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul Mujahid.

The French news agency AFP quotes a spokesman for the Afghan opposition, Abdullah, as saying bin Laden has been sighted inside Afghanistan by troops loyal to the anti-Taliban alliance. Abdullah says the Taliban's claim that bin Laden is missing is a ploy to ease U.S. pressure.

Bin Laden�s disappearance may, indeed, make life easier for the Taliban, which had been under increasing pressure from the United States and Britain to hand him over.

Last summer, the U.S. carried through with its threat to use military force against any state it believes is sponsoring terrorist activities. The U.S. bombed suspected terrorist training camps run by Bin Laden in Afghanistan after linking him with the East African bombings.