Search for Osama bin Laden Drags On

WASHINGTON (AP) — Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has unraveled in Afghanistan, but the search drags on for the elusive terrorist leader himself.

Is he holed up in a mountain cave? Is he hiding elsewhere in Afghanistan? Has he escaped to Pakistan? Is he dead?

``Anybody's guess,'' says Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

For all the battlefield gains against bin Laden's al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban allies, the key remaining American military goal in Afghanistan, killing or capturing bin Laden, remains unfulfilled.

In some respects the goal has seemed to become even more elusive in recent days.

Clues to bin Laden's whereabouts, which as recently as last week pointed to the mountainous Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, have dried up since his al-Qaida forces there collapsed and scattered.

Afghan tribal fighters' success in routing the al-Qaida from their caves and bunkers over the weekend led to a sharp drop in the amount of radio communications that could be monitored, Stufflebeem said Monday.

``A few days ago we believed he was in that area. Now we're not sure,'' Stufflebeem told a Pentagon news conference.

In Brussels, Belgium, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked about bin Laden. ``I know everyone's focusing on it,'' he said. But until bin Laden is located, it's ``not useful to speculate'' on his whereabouts.

Rumsfeld has said repeatedly that even if bin Laden has slipped out of Afghanistan, U.S. forces will keep up the hunt. And the defense secretary has stressed that the war on terror is much broader than a search for one man; its intent is to eliminate al-Qaida cells in dozens of countries.

Last week a voice believed to be bin Laden's was detected in a radio transmission in Tora Bora, but that was before his al-Qaida forces broke and ran. Stufflebeem said U.S. and Afghan troops were slowly, methodically searching abandoned caves and bunkers for clues.

``The search is now on, cave-to-cave, to find more and to interrogate more,'' he added.

Stufflebeem said no one should think the U.S. military ever had hard evidence of bin Laden's lair.

``I'm not sure how close we ever really have been,'' the admiral said. ``We have nailed it down to an area. Indicators were there. And now indicators are not there. So maybe he still is there, maybe he was killed, or maybe he's left.''

Bin Laden's bases in eastern Paktia province connect to Pakistan by hundreds of footpaths, many of which would allow him to cross undetected. From there he could disappear into Pakistan's sparsely populated Baluchistan province. Then he might make his way to the Arabian Sea coastline.

President Bush said Monday he is confident the Pakistan government will join the manhunt should bin Laden or any of his top lieutenants escape across that country's border with Afghanistan.

``The Pakistanis will help us, and they are helping us — look for not only one, Osama bin Laden, but for all al-Qaida murderers and killers. They will be brought to justice, and it's just a matter of time as far as I'm concerned,'' Bush said during a White House celebration of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.

Asked if he believes that bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, remains in Afghanistan, Bush replied:

``We get all kinds of reports: that he's in a cave, that he's not in a cave. There's all kinds of speculation. But when the dust clears, we'll find out where he is, and he'll be brought to justice.''

The Pentagon hopes the dust clears quickly. Stufflebeem said the longer bin Laden remains undetected, the more options he has for eluding his hunters. He mentioned that U.S. Navy ships are monitoring the waters off Pakistan's coast in case bin Laden or top Taliban leaders try to slip away by sea.

Rugged mountain ranges crisscross Afghanistan, providing hundreds of hiding places for bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan in 1996 after fleeing Sudan.

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