After denying for months that they knew the whereabouts of fugitive terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, leaders of the Taliban militia acknowledged yesterday that he is living in the portion of Afghanistan under their control.
News agencies in Islamabad, Pakistan, quoted Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil as saying that bin Laden is living in Afghanistan "under the protection of a special commission" and that only the unnamed members of that commission know his exact location.
The statement came two days after President Clinton banned all commerce with the Taliban and froze its assets in the United States to force Afghanistan to turn over bin Laden. It was not clear, however, whether the sanctions led to Muttawakil's statement or what else might have prompted the Taliban's admission.
The Taliban, militant Islamic fighters who enforce a rigid social code, control about 85 percent of Afghanistan, including an area hit last year by U.S. cruise missiles. The United States fired the missiles at remote bases allegedly used by bin Laden's organization, which Washington accused of carrying out the bombings last August of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The twin blasts killed 224 people.
Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia but has been stripped of his citizenship by the Saudi government. He recently was placed on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list, and the State Department has offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
One U.S. official said bin Laden moves frequently from camp to camp in Afghanistan and maintains a very close relationship with the Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar. According to unconfirmed press accounts, Mullah Omar is married to one of bin Laden's daughters.
"We know where he is," State Department spokesman James Foley said. "He is in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan."
Foley added that the United States would be prepared to revoke economic sanctions if the Taliban surrendered bin Laden, which he called the "first essential step" toward the diplomatic recognition that the Taliban craves. Other issues blocking international recognition include the Taliban's denial of education to girls.
U.S. officials confirmed a report in yesterday's New York Times that bin Laden, who is believed to control a substantial inheritance from his family's construction company in Saudi Arabia, has laundered money through the Dubai Islamic Bank.
Foley said the government of the United Arab Emirates, which effectively controls Dubai, "has told us that the Dubai Emirate government has taken steps to clean up the bank."