ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan said on Friday the United States had not given it any information about the presence of al Qaeda leaders after U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte said they were holed up in Pakistan. “We have no such information nor has any such thing been communicated to us by any U.S. authority,” Pakistan’s military spokesman Major-General Shaukat Sultan told Reuters.
Washington’s ally has always contended that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, could be either side of the rugged, porous border with Afghanistan. But in an unusually direct statement, Negroponte on Thursday named Pakistan as the centre of an al Qaeda web that radiated out to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
In a testimony to a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Negroponte wrote, without naming bin Laden or Zawahri, that al Qaeda leaders were holed up in a secure hide-out in Pakistan. He said they were rebuilding a network that has been decimated by the capture or killing of hundreds of al Qaeda members since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Negroponte acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts in the fight against terrorism but said it was a “major source of Islamic extremism”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry responded to Negroponte’s comments, saying he should have mentioned that successes against al Qaeda were made possible by Pakistan and the focus should “remain on cooperation instead of questionable criticism”.
It also contradicted Negroponte’s assertion that al Qaeda operatives elsewhere were being controlled from Pakistan. “In breaking the back of al Qaeda, Pakistan has done more than any other country in the world,” spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
Richard Boucher, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, walked into the controversy when he met President Pervez Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders on Friday for talks on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
While praising Pakistan for its efforts to stem militancy, Boucher said militants had launched a number of cross-border incursions from Pakistan into Afghanistan despite a peace agreement signed by the government with the militants in the South Waziristan tribal region in September. However, he said, it did not mean Pakistan was not making efforts to curb militant activities.
Negroponte noted the dangers Musharraf faced using force in the tribal areas, as well as the political risks of a backlash from Islamist political parties, especially as national elections were due in Pakistan this year.
Most security analysts suspect that bin Laden is likely to be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal regions or neighbouring districts of North West Frontier Province.
There has also been speculation that he may have died, though intelligence agencies say they have not picked up any supporting evidence.
A half-dozen audio tapes of bin Laden were circulated in the first half of 2006, but he last appeared in video tape in late 2004. Subsequent tapes released were identified as old footage.
Zawahri, however, has had several tapes released. On Jan. 5, an audio tape was posted on the Web by al Qaeda’s media arm al-Sahab, exhorting Somalian Islamists to attack Ethiopia. The authenticity of the tape could not be verified, but correspondents familiar with Zawahri’s voice said it was his.