18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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From Kandahar into thin airBy Jailan Halawi
Afghan sources have said that Osama bin Laden, the man the United States believes masterminded the bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, has left Afghanistan.
The report of bin Laden's departure came just days after the extremist Islamist Taliban movement, which rules most of Afghanistan, cut off all communication to his satellite telephone and imposed new restrictions on him. This, however, did not stop the Taliban from describing bin Laden as an honoured guest and a friend who helped the Afghan mujahedin fight the invading Soviet army in the 1980s.
"About Sheikh Osama, we just heard today [Saturday] that he has gone missing and we have no idea if he is still in Afghanistan or has left the country. But we have not forced him out," Taliban spokesman Tayeb Khan said from Kandahar.
Speaking for the first time on the issue, Mullah Mohamed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, stressed that bin Laden had not been forced out of Afghanistan. "We never forced Osama to leave the country. He was free to go to any country he wanted," Omar told the official radio station Shariat.
Diplomatic sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan speculated that the millionaire dissident, who has been stripped of his Saudi citizenship, could still be in Afghanistan but could be trying to secure private support to help him leave the country. The sources said bin Laden had a number of possible destinations, such as Chechnya or several isolated African countries, but Dubai or Iraq looked more likely because of the logistical support network available in both countries.
According to the sources, it is likely that bin Laden, who is probably travelling with an entourage of Egyptian and Turkish guards, will follow the smugglers' route through Pakistan or Iran. "From there he could take a boat to either Dubai or Iraq although it is possible he could travel overland through Iran to Iraq," one source said. Both routes are frequented by heroin smugglers and illegal traders who transport duty-free goods from Dubai to Pakistan, through Afghanistan.
One diplomatic source in Pakistan said: "We think he could still be in Afghanistan but he will definitely be looking at getting out of the country through private support. No government will help. It would be too easy to capture him in Chechnya but in Dubai, where he has many private supporters, he could hide. According to news reports, Iraq may be prepared to take him, but could he trust Saddam Hussein?"
The source said a combination of pressure from Pakistan, British diplomacy and bin Laden's own bad behaviour had forced him to flee Afghanistan.
A Pakistani intelligence source said bin Laden was spotted in Afghanistan, close to the Iranian border, on Friday. The Iranian government, however, denied reports that bin Laden was heading for the country, and a foreign ministry spokesman described the claims by an intelligence source as "irresponsible" and "regrettable".
The Taliban's spokesman at the United Nations, Noorullah Zadran, told the BBC that bin Laden may have sought refuge with the Afghan opposition or he may have left the country. "At this time we really don't know," he said. "Our policy has never changed. Mr Osama bin Laden is the guest of the Afghan people with the understanding that he is not allowed to make threats against anyone from the soil of Afghanistan."
Asked if the Taliban would be pleased if bin Laden had left Afghanistan, Zadran said: "We have said that we will not stand in his way but we are certainly not going to give him to someone who would put him on trial without any kind of evidence."
Taliban officials stated that no pressure was put on bin Laden to leave the country, despite repeated efforts by the US to have him extradited to stand trial for the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in August, which killed more than 250 people.
Bin Laden was believed to have been living in Kandahar, the Taliban's base in southern Afghanistan, since the US launched retaliatory missile strikes against his base in Afghanistan last year. There were fears that bin Laden's continued presence in the country would bring about another US military strike and hamper efforts by foreign aid groups and the UN, which were evacuated after the strikes, to return to the area.
British Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett cast doubt on the claim that bin Laden had gone missing. "I don't think that bin Laden can suddenly disappear from under the nose of the Taliban," he said recently. "The Taliban have a very strong degree of control over what he's doing. So I don't actually accept the notion that he's a free man able to walk around Afghanistan to do what he wishes," he said.
Fatchett held talks with Taliban officials last week in Islamabad, during which he reportedly put pressure on the militia over bin Laden.
US State Department Spokesman James Rubin said Washington could not confirm reports that bin Laden had left Afghanistan. Analysts said the Taliban's desire to be recognised as a legitimate government would have prompted moves by them to isolate bin Laden. But the US said these moves did not go far enough. "Our view is that what they have announced falls woefully short of what is required," State Department Spokesman James Foley said.
Foley would not comment on reports that the US had threatened military strikes against the Taliban if they did not expel bin Laden, but reiterated comments last week by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Washington reserved the right to use force against terrorism. Reports in the British press claim bin Laden was also plotting attacks against British targets in Europe.
The Guardian newspaper last week said a meeting took place in the Afghan mountains near Kandahar in late December between bin Laden and Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador in Turkey and one of the country's top intelligence men. The newspaper, which quoted US intelligence sources and Iraqi opposition figures, linked the meeting to a warning this week by US Attorney General Janet Reno before the Senate that a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction was a growing concern.
Bin Laden, a self-proclaimed enemy of the US, has often called on Muslims to kill Americans whenever possible.
In an interview with the US television network ABC in May, bin Laden declared the US should withdraw its military presence from Saudi Arabia or suffer the consequences.
Bin Laden was granted a safe haven in Afghanistan more than five years ago, when he turned up aboard his private plane, along with his three wives, children and 150 followers. He still has access to the plane, which he could use to leave the country -- but where to, remains to be seen.