- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

The commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan yesterday shrugged off speculation by Pakistan's president that kidney disease may have killed Osama bin Laden and said they are still looking for the terrorist leader.
Bin Laden could be "alive or dead, or in Afghanistan or not," said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command.
The four-star general was commenting on statements made yesterday by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who said bin Laden, a "kidney patient," may have died of kidney failure because he was unable to undergo dialysis while hiding in the mountains.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said that "we just don't know" whether bin Laden died from an illness.
"I don't think the president would view that as an unwelcome event," Mr. Fleischer said.
A U.S. official said there are no solid reports indicating that bin Laden has chronic kidney disease, or that he is dead, from either disease or U.S. bombing raids.
There have been recurrent rumors about bin Laden's health and that he may have had kidney stones or a kidney infection, the official said.
Gen. Musharraf said in a CNN interview that bin Laden's death by kidney failure is one of several possibilities. The others include that bin Laden is still hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan or has fled the country.
Meanwhile, Gen. Franks said he is concerned about heightened tensions between India and Pakistan.
Some Pakistani troops have been moved from the border near Afghanistan to areas near India, Gen. Franks said.
"We have also seen the retention of forces that have been working with us along the Pakistani-Afghan border," he said. "We have continued to see those forces present. Some have repositioned, but many have remained."
U.S. and Pakistani forces are sharing some facilities in Pakistan, and the relations "remain good," he said.
Military forces of both India and Pakistan have been on a war footing because of a Dec. 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. India's government has blamed the attacks on Muslim extremist groups linked to Pakistan.
Of the hunt for bin Laden, Gen. Franks said the military is searching throughout Afghanistan for him.
"I will tell you honestly: We do not know the location of bin Laden," Gen. Franks said, noting that "we're in the speculative sort of world."
"But we know this: The world is not a large enough place for him to hide," said Gen. Franks. "He may hide today. He may hide tomorrow. But it's not large enough for him to hide in."
The Saudi-born terrorist leader is believed to be the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters earlier this week that, although the locations of bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are not known precisely, "we still believe they're in the country."
In Afghanistan, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday said Iran may be sending pro-Iranian Afghan fighters to destabilize the newly installed U.S.-backed government.
Mr. Khalilzad stopped short of directly accusing Iran of interference but cited unspecified reports that Afghan fighters and money were being sent from Iran into the extremely volatile country to build opposition to Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.
"All of those things would be regarded as interference," Mr. Khalilzad said.
Gen. Franks said the 104th day of military operations focused on searching cave complexes, houses, bunkers and trenches.
Currently, the military has 427 al Qaeda and Taliban detainees, 317 in Afghanistan and 110 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Gen. Franks said progress is being made in opening convoy routes into Afghanistan to help deliver humanitarian aid.
"We see that international organizations and nongovernmental organizations are returning to Afghanistan in large numbers," he said.
Gen. Franks said there are about 10 pockets of resistance still in Afghanistan where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters remain holed up.
U.S. forces will be going to the areas to root out the remaining fighters, he said.
Also, U.S. forces have uncovered large numbers of weapons and equipment in a large cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. The arms included tanks, armored personnel carriers and thousands of rounds of ammunition for artillery, mortars and small arms.
The forces also have found several filing cabinets of documents that are being studied "very methodically," Gen. Franks said.
Gen. Franks said a senior Taliban official has surrendered to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and offered to cooperate with the U.S. hunt for bin Laden.
"He is not a nobody," Gen. Franks said of the unidentified defector. "He is as advertised; he is a financier with whom we have been having some discussions, and I think the information that he'll give will be useful to us, along with information, as I mentioned earlier, that we've gotten from a great many of these detainees."

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