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US: Fate of bin Laden Remains Unknown - 2002-02-24

Top U.S. military officials are downplaying the latest news reports on the fate of Osama bin Laden. They say there is still no hard evidence on the whereabouts of the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the United States still does not know if Osama bin Laden is alive or dead. "It is not something that can be known at the present time," he observed. "We see snippets that he is and snippets that he isn't and the short answer is that we have not seen any hard evidence that he is alive in recent weeks."

During an appearance on the NBC television program Meet the Press, Mr. Rumsfeld was asked about a report that appeared on the front page of Sunday's New York Times. The report quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying there are fresh indications Osama bin Laden has survived and is somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The Secretary of Defense said it is possible the al-Qaida leader is still in Afghanistan, but adds he may have left the country. "If you don't know where he is, you don't know where he is," he reiterated. "He may be in Afghanistan. I think that is the likeliest possibility. He could be across the border in a neighboring country."

America's number one military officer, General Richard Myers, was also asked about the New York Times story Sunday in a nationally broadcast interview. He told ABC's This Week it is reasonable to believe that Osama bin Laden could be hiding in the rough terrain of the border region. "I think it is very reasonable," he said. "But again, given that we don't know where he is, any speculation about where he might be would be somewhat foolish because we simply don't know."

General Myers went on to stress the United States will find Osama bin Laden and the former leader of Afghanistan's Taleban regime, Mullah Mohammad Omar. "We will get bin Laden for sure," he predicted. "We have gotten several of his lieutenants so far. But it is not the end. We should not think this war on terrorism is over when we get bin Laden. Because there are too many al-Qaida operatives out there in compartments that still have great capability. And while he was the leader, it will not end when we get bin Laden."

The senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee echoed that sentiment. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby told CNN's Late Edition that he believes Osama bin Laden will be found. Senator Shelby said he has seen new information on the whereabouts of the al-Qaida leader, but indicated it is far from conclusive. "I believe he is alive, but I don't know that as a fact," he said. "None of us do. We've got new information that he could be in a certain area, but we have heard this before."

There has been intense speculation in the press and the public about the fate of Osama bin Laden. There are theories that he was killed in the war, is in ill health or has escaped to a neighboring country. But there is no hard evidence to support any one scenario and the whereabouts of the man wanted for masterminding the terrorist attacks on America remain a mystery, despite a $25 million U.S. reward.