ISLAMABAD,(Reuters) – Pakistan rejected on Saturday a U.S. official’s assertion that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are operating from Pakistani territory.
A senior U.S. administration official told reporters in Washington Bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri and others were operating out of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders were directing insurgency operations in Afghanistan from the Pakistani city of Quetta, said the U.S. official who declined to be identified.
Pakistan has consistently denied that the militant leaders were on its territory since they disappeared when U.S.-led troops overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan for refusing to hand over bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Bin Laden and Omar are believed to have fled from Afghanistan at that time.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiqsaid if a U.S. official had information on the whereabouts of the wanted militants he should tell Pakistan. “If there is any actionable intelligence it should be shared with the government of Pakistan so that they can be neutralised,” Sadiq said. “You don’t talk to the media if you have information like this.” He said the U.S. official’s assertion was not correct. “If he was right, he would claim the bounty money, not speak to the media,” he said, referring to U.S. reward money for information leading to arrest of the militants. Pakistan did not know where the militant leaders were, Sadiq said. “If we knew, we would take action.”
Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks but President Pervez Musharraf threw his support behind the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism after the attacks on U.S. cities. But with the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan despite the efforts of U.S and NATO troops, frustration has been growing in the United States with what critics see as Pakistan’s less than whole-hearted efforts to tackle the militants on the border.
The U.S. official said despite the presence of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, the U.S. administration still saw Musharraf as a worthy ally.
The outcome of Pakistani elections, delayed until Feb. 18 after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, could have consequences for Musharraf if a hostile parliament emerges. “There are multiple sources of pressure and instability on Musharraf and the sense here has been what he really needs is a dependable partner to see him through this period and that’s been sort of the strategic logic of supporting Musharraf,” the U.S. official said.
Musharraf over time has “given us evidence that he is worth that kind of commitment both in terms of the degree to which his forces have taken on al Qaeda in particular, and the extent to which we think he’s doing quite well, given the hand he was dealt.”
The Bush administration had also been very impressed with Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and considered him a “promising partner,” the official said.