A senior Afghan official says al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was provided safe passage to Pakistan in 2001 by pro-al-Qaida Afghan commanders who were paid by the terrorist group.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, Lutfullah Mashal, tells VOA those commanders helped the al Qaida leader escape from the Tora Bora mountains as U.S. warplanes attacked his hideout near the Pakistani border in late 2001.

Mr. Mashal, who was then a journalist, said he was present in the Tora Bora mountains during the December 2001 operation. He said that while Arab fighters fled Tora Bora for Pakistan's Khyber tribal agency, senior al Qaida leaders trekked across to Parachinar in the same area with the help of some tribal elders.

Mr. Mashal said bin Laden ultimately reached Miranshah, the main town in another Pakistani tribal agency, North Waziristan. Mr. Mashal suspects he is still moving around Pakistan's tribal lands, guarded by Taleban fighters.