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Reports Fuel Speculation Over Bin Laden's Location

Osama bin Laden in a photograph believed to have been taken in Afghanistan in 2001
(RFE/RL) -- The mystery over Osama bin Laden's whereabouts has taken a new turn, with multiple reports claiming that the Al-Qaeda leader is not hiding in Pakistan, as widely believed, and could be in Afghanistan.

Information about the location of the man the U.S. blames for orchestrating the 9/11 terrorist attacks has been scarce ever since international forces launched a manhunt for him in Afghanistan in 2001. He is widely believed to have evaded efforts to capture him by crossing the border and finding safe have in the restive tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.

With a $25 million reward out for the fugitive terrorist's capture, speculation about bin Laden's whereabouts always generates international interest.

But this week's announcement of a new U.S. military strategy in the region, centered on the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan and an increased focus on the insurgency in Pakistan, appears to have sparked suggestions that bin Laden is not where he is assumed to be.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani got the rumor mill going during a visit to London on December 3 that followed calls by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month for Pakistan to do more to find and eliminate bin Laden.

When asked about Pakistan's efforts to track down the Al-Qaeda leader, Gilani was quoted as saying he does not "think Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan."

Notably, the Pakistani prime minister did not publicly endorse the United States' decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, saying his government is seeking more information regarding the deployment and proposed plans by Washington for increased aid to Pakistan.

A day later, a BBC report cited a Pakistani Taliban prisoner as saying that one of his Taliban contacts had offered him the opportunity to meet with bin Laden earlier this year.

The unidentified detainee said he believes the fugitive Saudi millionaire was present in the southeastern Afghan Province of Ghazni in January or February.

Doubt Case On Rumors

Pakistani journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid casts doubt, however, on the prospect that bin Laden could be hiding in Afghanistan.

"All the conclusions of the intelligence agencies working in Afghanistan -- Western, NATO, the United Nations, everybody -- concludes that bin Laden is on the Pakistan side of the border rather than Afghanistan," Rashid says. "I think if he was in Afghanistan, the American forces, the NATO forces, would have discovered it by now."

Commenting on recent reports that other fugitives widely believed to be in Pakistan were now in Afghanistan, Rashid says that "there is an enormous amount on misinformation coming out about the presence of these leaders."

One militant leader whose whereabouts are now in question is Maulana Fazlullah, the fugitive leader of the Pakistani Taliban. In telephone calls to Pakistani journalists in November, Fazlullah, who was believed to be hiding in northwestern Swat Valley, claimed that he was now in Afghanistan.

Some observers suggest that such claims could be beneficial to Islamabad, allowing it to deflect mounting Western pressure over militant leaders and key Jihadist groups believed to be on its soil by characterizing Afghanistan as the main base of extremism in the region.

Rashid notes that information regarding the location of other militant leaders, including Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former anti-Soviet mujahedin commander now closely linked to Al-Qaeda, "speak very conclusively about their presence in Pakistan."

He suggests that the information about bin Laden's presence is less certain.

"He has not been seen either in Pakistan or in Afghanistan. But the conclusion about bin Laden is that he is on the Pakistan side of the border simply because it is safer to be [in Pakistan] in the sense that Afghanistan is very much a free field of fire for U.S. forces," Rashid says.

"Pakistan, of course, is more restricted and there is less operational control of what the Americans can do and less good intelligence about his presence."

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