Pakistani and US forces have intensified the search for Osama bin Laden along a south-western stretch of the border with Afghanistan following information from a newly captured al-Qaida deputy, Pakistani intelligence and military officials say.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, thought to be the No 3 figure in the terror network, told interrogators he met bin Laden just weeks ago in a rendezvous set up through a network of phone calls and intermediaries, an intelligence official said yesterday.
At least two raids have been carried out in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan region based on information from Mohammed since his capture last weekend, another Pakistani intelligence official said. There were no major arrests from the raids, the official said.
Telephone numbers taken from Mohammed’s mobile phone are being tracked. The phone contained numbers inside and outside Pakistan, a government official said.
“The people he contacted in Pakistan have naturally been put under surveillance and we suspect the American agencies are doing the same,” the official said.
Since Mohammed’s arrest, joint Pakistani and US forces have been searching for bin Laden and his son, Saad, along the 350-mile stretch of border from the Baluchistan town of Chaman to the Iranian border, a Pakistan military source said.
Villagers contacted in Dal Bandin, 170 miles south of the Baluchistan capital of Quetta, said two military aircraft landed at their small airstrip and US forces got off. There was no confirmation from the US or Pakistani military.
The activity apparently generated rumours that bin Laden had been captured, but officials in Washington and in Pakistan said it was not true.
Since the weekend, residents in Chaman said US aircraft swarmed overhead, dropping Pashtu-language leaflets on both sides of the border reminding them of the 25 million reward for bin Laden.
US special forces and Pakistani soldiers are also farther north along the border, trying to flush out Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives in South Waziristan, in the North West Frontier province.
Mohammed’s meeting with bin Laden took place somewhere in Baluchistan or farther north along the border, a Pakistani intelligence official told The Associated Press.
The official was one of a team of Pakistani and CIA agents who interrogated Mohammed for hours after he was nabbed in a pre-dawn raid in Rawalpindi on Saturday.
The intelligence official quoted Mohammed as saying of bin Laden, “The sheik is a hero of Islam and I am his tiny servant. Life, family, money, everything can be sacrificed for the sheik.” The official did not reveal what Mohammed and bin laden discussed.
Mohammed told his interrogators he did not know bin Laden’s exact whereabouts, but that he was in the remote border region.
On Monday, The AP received similar information about bin Laden’s supposed location from a former intelligence chief of the ousted Taliban regime.
In a telephone interview from Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar, the former Taliban official said bin Laden had been seen less than two months ago meeting with Taliban members in South Waziristan. His report could not be independently verified.
Several sources say bin Laden moves with only a few guards, changing locations nightly and never using satellite telephones that could be used to pinpoint his location.
Instead, he reportedly sends messages through intermediaries, according to another former Taliban official interviewed by AP.
Western diplomats say it is intriguing that Mohammed was arrested in Rawalpindi, a city of four million near Islamabad that is home to army generals, top military officials and President Pervez Musharraf.
Mohammed was arrested at the house of Ahmed Abdul Qadus, an activist within Pakistan’s oldest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which has close links with Pakistan’s state InterServices Intelligence, or ISI.
Jamaat-e-Islami activists worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence service to help Afghan insurgents during the 1980s, when the US bankrolled an anti-communist war in Afghanistan.
Arab and Pakistani sources have told AP that Mohammed may have been trying to raise money for terrorist attacks against US interests.
A second al-Qaida suspect, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hisawi, a Saudi national suspected of financing the September 11 attacks, was arrested with Mohammed. Qadus was also detained.