PARIS, (Reuters) – France’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday it could not confirm a newspaper report quoting French secret services as saying al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had died but would launch an inquiry into the leak of secret papers.
The Defence Ministry issued the statement after the French regional newspaper L’Est Republicain said Saudi Arabia was convinced bin Laden had died of typhoid in Pakistan last month.
“The information published this morning in the L’Est Republicain newspaper relating to the supposed death of Osama bin Laden cannot be confirmed,” the Defence Ministry said.
“The Defence Minister (Michele Alliot-Marie) has asked that an inquiry be carried out to determine the origin of the leak that can be punished by criminal charges.”
A U.S. intelligence official told Reuters the report should be treated with caution and a senior Pakistan government official said Islamabad had not received any information from any foreign government that would corroborate the story.
The Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry spokesman was not available for comment and a Western diplomat in Riyadh said the diplomatic community had no such information.
“If anyone was in the picture, I doubt it would be Saudi intelligence. Even if Saudi Arabia had information, they’d pass it on to the United States, not France. It doesn’t ring true,” the diplomat said.
The French newspaper printed what it said was a copy of the report dated Sept. 21 and said it was passed on to President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on the same day.
“According to a usually reliable source, the Saudi services are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead,” the document said.
“The information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al Qaeda was a victim while he was in Pakistan on Aug. 23, 2006, of a very serious case of typhoid which led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs.”
The report, which was stamped with a “confidential defence” label and the initials of the French secret service, said Saudi Arabia first heard the information on Sept. 4 and that it was waiting for more details before making an official announcement.
The U.S. intelligence official, who declined to be named, said bin Laden had long been rumoured to be suffering from kidney ailments and is reported to have received dialysis.
“We have believed him to be in declining health for some time and there have been other rumours of his demise.” He said bin Laden had “minimal operational involvement at this time” in al Qaeda.
Saudi-born bin Laden was based in Afghanistan until the Taliban government there was overthrown by U.S.-backed forces in 2001. Since then, U.S. and Pakistani officials have regularly said they believe he is hiding somewhere on the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His last videotaped message released was in late 2004, but several low quality audio tapes have been released this year.
Senior U.S. intelligence figures have said bin Laden remains a significant inspirational figure but his death or capture could have a substantial impact in the war on terrorism.
They note, however, that the death of al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in June, has failed to lead to any letup in the violence there.