KABUL (Reuters) – The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said on Thursday he did not believe fugitive al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar were in the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad was responding to comments by a senior Taliban commander who said bin Laden, architect of the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, was in good health and that Omar was in direct command of Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
"Mullah Omar is not is Afghanistan; I do not believe Osama is in Afghanistan," Khalilzad told a news conference, without saying where they were thought to be.
U.S. officials have said in the past that Osama was thought to be hiding in the rugged border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Khalilzad, who has been nominated by President Bush as the next U.S. envoy to Iraq, said it remained symbolically important to catch bin Laden, even though it was unclear how much operational charge he now had of his network.
"Sooner or later I believe firmly that he will be caught," he said. "But this is a long-term struggle.
"It”s not an easy job to find one person, with some helping him — a small group of people in a vast region. It requires timely intelligence. By timely, I mean information in time so that you can bring forces to bear to deal with the situation."
Khalilzad, who has repeatedly accused Afghanistan”s neighbor, Pakistan, of sheltering militants, said capturing bin Laden required the cooperation of law enforcement agencies of a variety of countries.