- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

NEW YORK (UPI) Two Afghans say they saw terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden flee from the Tora Bora cave complex in December, Newsweek reports in today's issue.

The first Afghan, a guide, told Newsweek he led bin Laden and a group of 28 persons on horseback out of Tora Bora to the caves of Shah-e-kot, another Afghan mountain stronghold.

"It was the hardest trip in my whole 23 years of jihad," he said. "We faced such a zigzag and complicated route and often had to get down from our horses."

He said the group traveled at night through heavy snow and reached their destination in four or five days.

"Osama rarely got down from his horse; he was such an expert rider," he said.

The second Afghan, a Taliban soldier named Ali Mohammad, said he saw bin Laden in Shah-e-kot in mid-February when his unit was told to prepare for a U.S. attack. He saw bin Laden coming there with 15 armed security men.

"Be honest with each other and be true and sincere with your commander and keep your morale and spirits high," bin Laden told them, according to Mr. Mohammad. "Take care of the injured and be confident that God will award you on Judgment Day."

The report is the latest in a series in the past month about bin Laden's whereabouts. The mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks has not been seen or heard from since the U.S. attack on Afghanistan's Tora Bora cave complex in December.

Regular video appearances on the pan-Arab Al Jazeera satellite network stopped some eight months ago.

Last month, the London-based Arabic daily Ash Sharq al-Awsat reported bin Laden would appear in a taped message in August soon after a series of attacks against U.S. interests. A day earlier, the newspaper had reported that bin Laden's eldest son, Saad, had taken over as leader of al Qaeda, fueling speculation the Saudi-born terrorist may be dead.

Also last month, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes told Britain's Channel 4 News that bin Laden was alive and well in Pakistan and that Pakistani intelligence services knew his whereabouts. Pakistan denied the charge.

Some believe bin Laden may be dead.

Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, said in July that he thought this was the case.

"I personally think he's probably not with us anymore," he said.

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