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Musharraf Says Forces Nearly Nabbed Bin Laden

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A17

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 15 -- Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, said in an interview broadcast Tuesday that the Pakistani army might have come close to capturing Osama bin Laden near the Afghan border in the late spring or early summer of last year.

"There was a time when the dragnet had closed and we thought we knew roughly the area where he possibly could be," Musharraf told the BBC. "That was, I think, some time back . . . maybe about eight to 10 months back."

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But bin Laden, the fugitive leader of the al Qaeda network, eluded security forces, and the trail has since gone cold, Musharraf said. "This is such a game, this intelligence," he said. "They can move, and then you lose contact."

In the past, Pakistani officials have consistently denied having specific knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts, although he and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, have long been thought to be hiding in the semiautonomous tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Three Pakistani security officials said in interviews Tuesday night that they were perplexed by Musharraf's comments and were not aware of any instance in which Pakistani forces had come close to capturing bin Laden.

But in an interview late last year, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, the commander of the Pakistani army's 11th Corps, said that when he took up his command last March he had been open to the idea that bin Laden might still be hiding in the tribal area of South Waziristan. He said he ordered his troops to look for the "signature" of bin Laden's elaborate and highly compartmentalized security entourage, details of which had emerged from interrogations of foreign militants captured in South Waziristan.

In his interview with the BBC, Musharraf offered no details as to how and where bin Laden might have been cornered last year. The al Qaeda leader subsequently reemerged in November, when he appeared on a video to threaten new attacks against the United States.

Special correspondent Kamran Khan contributed to this report.

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