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Pentagon: bin Laden's Whereabouts Unknown - 2001-12-17

The Pentagon says there is still scattered fighting in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region, but a top defense official admits no one now knows where al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is.

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem says the fighting is still not over in the Tora Bora area. He says it remains a top priority in the U.S. led effort to destroy the al-Qaida terrorist network. "There are still isolated pockets of al-Qaida fighting so we are not done yet," he said.

Still, Admiral Stufflebeem says al-Qaida fighters are largely on the run. He says more al-Qaida and Taleban have been taken prisoner and some have been handed over to U.S. military authorities by the Afghan forces holding them. "We are obtaining custody of some of these al-Qaida and Taleban troops, but so far we have a total of five currently in detention status with the U.S. forces," said Rear Admiral Stufflebeem.

All five are aboard a U.S. ship in the Arabian Sea. One is the so-called American Taleban, John Walker Lindh. Another is believed to be an Australian. Pentagon officials have released no information on the other three. But they say U.S. forces are interrogating additional prisoners held by Afghan forces and predict more will be transferred to American custody.

In the meantime, the search for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and terrorist fighters goes on in the Tora Bora area - in many cases in a painstaking cave by cave process. "Every cave that is entered is being treated as a hostile environment so it is a very slow methodical process," he said.

But Admiral Stufflebeem makes clear no one is sure whether bin Laden is still there. "Maybe he is still there, maybe he was killed or maybe he has left," he said.

Admiral Stufflebeem says there are reports some al-Qaida have fled into Pakistan and that some have been detained by authorities there. He provided no details.