- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

TEHRAN — U.S. and Pakistani officials yesterday denied an Iranian state radio report that Osama bin Laden was captured in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan “a long time ago.”

The claim came as Pakistan’s army hunted terror suspects in a remote tribal region along the border, believed to be a possible hiding place for the al Qaeda leader.

The director of Iran radio’s Pashtun language service, Asheq Hossein, said the report was based on two sources — one of whom later told the Associated Press he was misquoted.

The report said bin Laden had been in custody for a period of time, but that President Bush was withholding any announcement until closer to the presidential elections in November.

“Osama bin Laden has been arrested a long time ago, but Bush is intending to use it for propaganda maneuvering in the presidential election,” the radio report said.

Pakistani officials have denied knowing bin Laden’s exact whereabouts, although there have been reports that military forces believe they know his general location and had him encircled.

The state radio report, quoting an unidentified source, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s visit to the region this week was in connection with bin Laden’s arrest.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita, who traveled with Mr. Rumsfeld last week to Afghanistan, denied the report. “I don’t have any reason to think it’s true,” he said yesterday.

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, also said he had no information to suggest bin Laden had been caught.

“Things are going well, and we believe we will eventually catch all the leaders of al Qaeda, but I know nothing of that report,” he said.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed called the report “baseless.”

“We have neither arrested Osama nor have we any information about him,” he said.

Pakistani Army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan also said the report was not true. “That information is wrong,” he said.

Mr. Hossein said one of the sources for the report was Shamim Shahed, who was identified as an editor of the English-language Pakistani newspaper the Nation. Mr. Hossein said Mr. Shahed told him Friday night that bin Laden was arrested “a long time ago.”

But Mr. Shahed, who is the Nation’s bureau chief in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and not its editor, denied telling Iranian radio that bin Laden had been captured.

“I never said this,” he said in a telephone interview. “But I have for the last year been saying that he is not far away. He is within [the Americans’] reach, and they can declare him arrested any time.”

Mr. Hossein said he had a second source for the report but declined to identify him other than as “a man with close links to intelligence services and Afghan tribal leaders.”

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