- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) — A joint Pakistani and U.S. security team came close to capturing Osama bin laden, and were only "hours behind (him)," Pakistani intelligence officials told United Press International Tuesday.

Speaking to UPI by telephone from Islamabad, they said the al Qaida leader was "running around" in a narrow corridor that joins Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran trying to ditch his pursuers.

"We are right behind him," said one intelligence official. "The problem is that he keeps moving, but for how long. Sooner or later, we will catch up with him," he added.

Pakistani officials said "a small team of U.S. intelligence personnel" is accompanying the Pakistan army, which is leading the search for bin Laden.

They said U.S. drones were helping the search operation, providing valuable data.

The sources didn't say when this near miss happened. However, on Monday evening, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States indicated that Pakistani security forces were closing in on bin Laden and might catch him soon.

Speaking at an anti-terrorism forum in Washington on the recent arrest of a senior al Qaida leader, Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi said: "There is reason to believe that hopefully in the future we might even have some bigger fish captured and we will get on top of this problem of terrorism as such."

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man Washington says planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was captured last week from Rawalpindi.

Qazi's comments follow the arrest of another al Qaida suspect, Masood, in Peshawar last week. Masood, who is either an Afghan or an Egyptian, is believed to have told interrogators that he and Khalid Sheikh had been in contact with bin Laden.

Qazi told the anti-terrorism forum at George Washington University that Pakistan had taken "the major role in tracking down and arresting and detaining and handing over large numbers of suspects". He said a total of 500 arrests had been made.

Twice, he said, Pakistan hoped to catch "bigger fish," adding: "If there are such bigger fish in the pond within the area in which we operate they will certainly be captured because Pakistan is not a safe haven for any al Qaida or any terrorists."

Meanwhile, reports in the U.S. media say that Khalid Sheikh was suffering from a high fever during three days of interrogation by a joint U.S.-Pakistani team before being transferred to U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.

During the first two days he was uncooperative but on the third day he started divulging information on his contacts inside and outside Pakistan, including a meeting with bin Laden in December, the reports said.

On the basis of the interrogation and other evidence, investigators believed bin Laden was alive.

Since Khalid Sheikh's arrest, raids have netted 10 more suspects.

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