Saturday, January 28, 2006

KARACHI, Pakistan — Demurral by the Pakistani government cost the United States the chance to kill Osama bin Laden in an air strike near the Afghan border two years ago, the Sunday Telegraph has learned.

A CIA lead that the al Qaeda leader was hiding in a remote province was squandered because the Pakistani government delayed giving permission for the attack on its soil, according to a senior Western diplomat.

By the time U.S. officials got the go-ahead, bin Laden had left the suspected hide-out in Zhob, in the Baluchistan province of southwest Pakistan.

The near-miss was cited by the diplomat as the reason why the United States chose not to consult Islamabad before the U.S. missile strike in Pakistan’s Bajaur region two weeks ago. The Jan. 13 attack, prompted by a tip that bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was hiding in a local village, killed 13 civilians.

Speaking of the Zhob attack, the diplomat, who asked not to be named, said: “For unknown reasons, Pakistani officials delayed in giving permission … which ultimately gave these militants time to move to an unknown location.”

According to his account, which was backed by sources within Pakistani intelligence, the CIA picked up electronic traffic suggesting that bin Laden and his bodyguards had sought temporary shelter in Zhob, which is dominated by Pathan and Baloch tribesmen sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Fearing that a commando raid would cause massive casualties to both sides, with no guarantee of success, the United States decided to launch a strike by laser-guided missiles, fired from Predator drones.

The reason for the delay is not clear. While Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to eliminate terrorists operating within his country, elements within Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service may have sought to protect bin Laden.

If he was in Zhob at the time, it would have been the first known occasion that he had been firmly in America’s sights since his escape from Tora Bora in Afghanistan, where he slipped through a cordon of U.S. troops in 2001.

Gen. Musharraf last week described the strike against al-Zawahri as a “violation of sovereignty,” although he said other al Qaeda figures had died in the raid.

Al-Zawahri is thought to have canceled his visit, possibly after spotting CIA drones in the area.

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