- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Enemy forces are gathering again in a region of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden once held sway, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
U.S. troops are conducting surveillance and carrying out intelligence operations in the area of Khost, near the Pakistani border, Air Force Brig. Gen. John Rosa Jr. said at a Pentagon briefing.
He described the scene there as "tense" and "dangerous."
Gen. Rosa wouldn't provide details about the number of men involved, how they might be communicating or activities in which they were engaged.
"We continue to observe," he said. "But to start to characterize at this point in time what we're seeing, I think, is a bit premature."
The Khost area was a haven for bin Laden when Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban. The Islamist militia had strong support in the mountainous area, and many believe its popularity continues.
The United States contended bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist group had several training camps in the Khost area, and it was the target of U.S. missile attacks after the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that Afghan military officials said bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were seen in the area in recent days.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they do not know the location of bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban before a rival Afghan militia ousted it in October with the aid of U.S. special forces and air strikes.
Gen. Rosa and Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, yesterday reiterated that position.
"But what has stayed very, very consistent is we get reports that they're here, we get reports that they're there, we get reports that he's alive, and we get reports that he's dead," Mrs. Clarke said. "But we just don't know."
Gen. Rosa noted that there had been no "direct-action contact" with enemy forces in Afghanistan in more than a week.
During the past 24 hours, he said, U.S. aircraft have flown more than 150 sorties over Afghanistan, some for intelligence and reconnaissance, and some as potential support for soldiers who might encounter enemy resistance.
In a related development, the Associated Press reported yesterday that Saturday's postponement of the return to Afghanistan of King Mohammed Zahir Shah came after President Bush and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi talked by phone about the monarch's safety.
An Italian government official told the wire service that Italy also had "alarming reports" about an assassination plan. When the 87-year-old king does return, the official said, Italy plans to be in charge of his security, according to the AP.


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