ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan’s military spokesman said on Sunday he had no knowledge of a report that two years ago a delay by Pakistan in giving clearance for a U.S. airstrike gave time for Osama bin Laden to escape.
The report on the Web site of Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper quoted an unnamed senior Western diplomat as saying that the CIA got a lead two years ago that the al Qaeda leader was hiding in Zhob, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
It said that by the time U.S. officials got the go-ahead from Pakistan for an air strike, bin Laden had left the area.
Pakistan’s military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan said he had no knowledge of the specific incident, so could not say if it was right or wrong.
“But from what I know of procedures, I assume this would be wrong,” he told Reuters. “Intelligence is passed along and acted upon as fast as possible.”
Shaukat added that the appearance of such a report two years after a supposed event was “absolutely absurd.”
The Telegraph quoted the diplomat as saying the CIA picked up electronic traffic suggesting bin Laden and his bodyguards had sought temporary shelter with sympathetic tribesmen in Zhob.
Fearing a commando raid would cause massive casualties to both sides Washington decided to launch a strike using laser-guided missiles, fired from Predator drones, it said.
It quoted the diplomat as saying that Pakistan delayed permission “for unknown reasons … which ultimately gave these militants time to move to an unknown location.”
The Telegraph said the incident would have been the first time bin Laden was firmly in U.S. sights since he escaped U.S. troops in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains in late 2001.
On January 13, a U.S. missile strike killed 18 villagers in a Pashtun tribal area close the border with Afghanistan.
The CIA had hoped to kill bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, though Pakistani intelligence sources have since said the veteran Egyptian militant was not there.
Officials say four other al Qaeda members may have been killed but their bodies have not been found and more than two weeks after the event there has been no confirmation.
That strike caused a furor as it killed 18 civilians, according to Pakistani officials, and prompted a rare official protest from Islamabad, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and anti-U.S. demonstrations in several cities.