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Osama's Status Still In Question

Afghanistan's foreign minister believes most al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, including Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, are in hiding across the border in northwest Pakistan.

"They are mainly on the other side of our border, that is, in the northwestern frontier of Pakistan," Foreign Minister Abdullah said of al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. "My perception is that Mullah Omar and bin Laden, they both are somewhere in Pakistan."

He gave no proof to back up the claim.

A U.S.-led coalition has been struggling to hunt down the two leaders and their supporters for months in the rugged hills and mountains that straddle the two nations' common border.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Sunday that if Osama bin Laden is alive "it's only a matter of time" before he is found.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, also said there was no "convincing proof" that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are dead.

Franks spoke during a visit to Bagram air base, the headquarters for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

The Taliban were strongly backed by Pakistan's government for years. But Pakistan withdrew its support following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and joined the American-led war on terrorism.

The Taliban and their al Qaeda allies were ousted last year in a U.S.-led bombing campaign supported by ground troops from the Afghan opposition northern alliance.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan — controlled now in large part by northern alliance leaders who once opposed Pakistan — have been awkward since the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai took power.

Abdullah said, however, that relations between the two neighbors had "entered a new phase" and "improved a great deal" in recent months.

In April, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf visited Kabul and met with Karzai. Abdullah was scheduled to visit Pakistan on Monday.

The foreign minister, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said hunting down terrorists in Pakistan was up to that country's government.

"We should all focus more on al Qaeda and former Taliban leaders. They are present in the region and they can pose threats in the future," Abdullah said. "The issue of the presence of Taliban leaders and al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan is an issue for Pakistan to deal with."

Pakistani officials have said repeatedly that they do not believe bin Laden or Mullah Omar are on Pakistani soil. Asked about rumors that bin Laden may be in Pakistan's tribal region, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Aziz Khan laughed and said Monday that if anyone knew his whereabouts "he should collect the $25 million dollars" U.S. reward, adding "If I knew, I would."

"These are just claims, everybody keeps making all sorts of claims," Khan added.

In March, a joint U.S.-Pakistan team captured Abu Zubaydah, believed to be the third-ranking figure in al Qaeda, during a raid on a hide-out in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad.

As part of efforts to improve relations between the two nations, Abdullah said a group of Pakistani prisoners — captured in fighting last year and suspected of being al Qaeda members — would probably be handed over to Pakistani authorities "in a few days."

Earlier this month, a dozen jailed Pakistani al Qaeda members escaped from a small prison in the intelligence ministry building. After a lengthy pursuit, three killed themselves with grenades as soldiers closed in and the rest were killed in a gunbattle just south of Kabul, according a recent account by Abdullah.

On Monday Franks met with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov in the capital Dushanbe, the latest stop in a tour of Central Asian states. He told reporters that while the terrorist network in the region had been unraveled, some individual groups had escaped destruction and remained viable. Battling those groups remains a top priority, he said.

``We do know that there is a much better sense of security and stability in this region than it was a year ago. We know that there remains much to be done in Afghanistan, but more than 20 million in that country have chances and opportunities they didn't have one year ago,'' Franks said.

In other news, the Saudi Interior Ministry confirmed Sunday it is holding a 21-year-old Saudi man the FBI is seeking for alleged links to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Authorities are interrogating Saud Abdulaziz Saud al-Rasheed "and if it is proven that he was connected to terrorism, he will be referred to the sharia (Islamic) court," the official Saudi Press Agency quoted an unidentified ministry official as saying Sunday.

Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom is holding 16 suspected al Qaeda members. Another al Qaeda-related arrest announced in June included 11 Saudis, an Iraqi, and a Sudanese man who confessed he had fired a surface-to-air missile at a U.S. military plane taking off from a Saudi air base.

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