Musharraf: Bin Laden May Be in Pakistan

AP Wire Service

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Osama bin Laden may be hiding in the rocky stronghold of Pakistan’s Islamic hardliners close to the Afghan border, President Pervez Musharraf said in remarks Thursday.

In an interview with a London-based television channel, Musharraf insisted Pakistani forces are doing all they can to track bin Laden down. But he said if the al-Qaida chief was part of a small al-Qaida cell “he can hide anywhere.”

“They may be hiding in our tribal areas, but I cannot say with certainty,” Musharraf told satellite channel ARY Gold. “Our army is operating there. We have asked tribesmen to tell us if they know anything. The tribesmen have said they will do it.”

U.S. and Pakistani officials suspect that bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants survived U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and may have found refuge in Pakistan’s ultraconservative tribal belt.

Islamabad insists it is determined to root out terrorists, and this week arrested a Yemeni suspected in both the Sept. 11 attacks as well as the deadly bombing in 2000 of the U.S. destroyer Cole.

But the federal government has only limited control in its fiercely autonomous tribal regions.

The border areas were a staging post for Islamic militants who defeated Afghanistan’s communist rulers in 1982 and for the later Taliban regime, which gave refuge to al-Qaida until their ouster in late 2001. And Islamic hardliners made big gains in the region in October elections.

But Musharraf has shrugged off their opposition to make Pakistan a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, detaining some 450 fugitive al-Qaida and Taliban members, including several top figures.

“We have arrested most of the al-Qaida people,” he said in the interview, which was recorded Thursday in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. “They were handed over to America because their own governments were not prepared to take them back.”

The United States also has urged Pakistan also to clamp down on Pakistan-based militants fighting in Kashmir, the Himalayan region that Pakistan has contested with Hindu India for more than 50 years, and negotiate a settlement.

Musharraf said that an announcement by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last month that he was ready for new talks on Kashmir was a “good omen.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali this week telephoned Vajpayee to say he was ready to travel to New Delhi or welcome the Indian premier to Islamabad.

“It’s a good start. We have always favored talks,” he said.