PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) -Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar has added to the mystery over Osama bin Laden, saying he had not seen his ally and fellow fugitive since U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001.
“No, I have neither seen him, nor have I made any effort to do so, but I pray for his health and safety,” Omar said in an e-mailed response to questions sent by Reuters.
The questions were relayed to Omar through his spokesman Mohammad Hanif, and a reply was received late on Wednesday.
A half-dozen audio tapes of bin Laden were circulated during the first half of 2006, but the al Qaeda leader last appeared on video tape in late 2004, while tapes of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been issued regularly.
A video tape of bin Laden was released late last year, but it was identified as old footage, and the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States passed without any word from the al Qaeda leader.
Speculation over the whereabouts and health of bin Laden boiled over in September when a French provincial newspaper reported that he had died of typhoid in late August.
Though several governments and intelligence agencies rebutted that report, saying they had no evidence to suggest bin Laden had died, nor did they have any clue to where he was.
The wealthy Saudi-born bin Laden helped bankroll the Taliban after moving to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and he reportedly married one of Omar’s daughters to cement their alliance.
The best guess to bin Laden’s whereabouts remains somewhere on the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the ethnic tribal lands where Omar’s Taliban counts on support to fight an insurgency against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both major U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, have deteriorated sharply over the past year in the wake of the bloodiest campaign mounted by the Taliban since it was ousted from power.
To mend the rift and start a political process to end the militancy, the two governments plan to organize tribal councils — known as jirgas — on both sides of the border.
No dates have been fixed.
A Taliban spokesman last month said the group might join the jirgas if asked, but Omar rejected the proposal.
“The only people who would participate are those who have sold out to foreign powers. Our participation is absolutely out of the question,” the fugitive militant leader said.
He reiterated his call for the withdrawal of foreign troops to end conflict in Afghanistan.
“Unless that happens, the war will heat further up,” Omar warned.
Afghanistan says Omar is based in or around the southwest Pakistani city of Quetta. Pakistan says he is in Afghanistan.