U.S. officers assume bin Laden is alive

Operations along border with Pakistan are meant to keep fugitives moving


ASADABAD, Afghanistan - After months of frustration, U.S. commanders appear to have concluded that Osama bin Laden is probably alive and moving between mountain hideouts somewhere on a 250-mile stretch of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The hunt for bin Laden and his associates, including his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has proved to be as murky as the silted rivers flowing through these inhospitable mountains. Nearly a year after Sept. 11, and nearly nine months after bin Laden's associates delivered their last videotape of him discussing the attacks in New York and Washington, hard facts about the quest for the top al-Qaida leaders are elusive.

But some American officers, speaking privately, say the assumption driving the current manhunt is that the leaders are still alive. They cite intelligence reports from Afghan and Pakistani sources, most of them sketchy, that have spoken of bin Laden and an entourage of several dozen moving more than once since the U.S. bombing in the Tora Bora mountains late last year.

Some of these intelligence reports, the American officers say, suggest that the fugitives might have moved through the mountains on horseback, probably on cloudy nights to elude aerial surveillance.

The region involved in the search covers four Afghan provinces, Kunar, Nangahar, Paktika and Paktia, and the adjoining Pakistani tribal areas.

At the time of the biggest American ground battle of the war, at the Shahikot valley 100 miles southwest of Kabul in March, American commanders said al-Qaida and Taliban fighters who resisted American troops for 11 days might be protecting "high-value assets."

A spokesman for the U.S. command, Lt. Col. Roger King, said Special Forces units deployed to bases such as the one at Asadabad were working on the assumption that applying pressure on any possible hideout was the best means of exposing their quarry.

"I'd say it's a reasonable conclusion that we feel that if bin Laden is alive, we're providing enough pressure to make sure he keeps moving," he said. "It's easier to spot a moving target."

The Special Forces units that are leading the hunt in the frontier region move by helicopter or in camouflaged Humvee jeeps, often followed by clusters of helmeted soldiers clutching assault rifles.

American troops on both sides of the border have dropped leaflets urging the tribesmen to turn in any al-Qaida "terrorists" who seek refuge and proclaiming the $25 million U.S. reward posted for bin Laden.

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