Taliban: Bin Laden Has Gone Missing

ReutersAfghan traders working Sunday at Chaman, near the Pakistan-Afghan border, as the Taliban prepares for a possible U.S. attack.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The ruling Taliban said Sunday that Osama bin Laden had gone missing and they could not deliver an edict asking him to leave the country.

"We have still not been able to deliver the clerics' message to him because we could not find him," Taliban spokesman Abul Hai Mutmaen said by telephone from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

Asked if the world's most wanted man was still in the country, he replied: "I cannot say."

The report was greeted with skepticism by the United States.

"They [the Taliban] know their country," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on the CBS "Face the Nation" program. "They have networks throughout the country, and it is just not believable that the Taliban do not know where the network can be located and found and either turned over or expelled."

"We are not going to be deterred by comments that he may be missing," National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice told the "Fox News Sunday" television program. "We're going to find out."

Bin Laden has gone missing before. In February 1999, just days after the United States threatened to renew efforts to track him down, the Taliban said he had disappeared. He resurfaced a few days later.

Bin Laden has lived as a "guest" of the Taliban since 1996 under an ancient Pushtun code that says sanctuary must be given to all those who ask for it -- even at the risk of death to the provider. Ethnic Pushtuns make up the majority of Afghanistan's estimated 20 million people.

Mutmaen said the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had given his seal of approval to a fatwa, or edict, issued by a council of 1,000 senior Islamic clerics Thursday in Kabul, requesting bin Laden to leave of his own accord, in his own time.

Asked if he was worried that something might happen to their missing "guest," Mutmaen said: "No, he is never alone. He has his followers with him. Also he knows how to look after himself."

The Taliban were busy Sunday building bunkers, installing anti-aircraft batteries and arming men in key border areas to defend the country against expected attack from the United States, witnesses and officials said.

They said workers were reinforcing defenses along the border with Pakistan from Nangahar province near the Khyber pass to Kandahar province, the main stronghold of the movement, which has vowed a jihad if it is attacked.

Travelers from the region said the Taliban also have Stinger missiles -- the sophisticated U.S.-built surface-to-air missiles that Washington originally supplied in the mid-1980s to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union.

Taliban officials have also begun recruiting tribesmen in the region and say volunteers have come forward to defend their villages and valleys.

"We have started distributing arms to people. Realizing their religious and national responsibility, scores of people are joining us daily," said Mohammad Hamid, a Taliban official from Kandahar.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. An aid agency reported looting in cities as townspeople evacuated for the countryside. "There is now looting in Herat because so many people have left," said Alex Renton, a spokesman for Oxfam, after speaking to local staffers in the city.

He said Oxfam staff also reported heavy fighting at Jawand near the Turkmenistan border between Taliban forces and their Northern Alliance opponents, who have stepped up their activities since being emboldened by the prospect of the United States joining their fight.

The Northern alliance hold less than 10 percent of the country -- a thin northern corridor and a few pockets scattered around the country -- but are dug in some 50 kilometers north of the capital.

The Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, has offered to join the United States in its operations and its top military commander, General Mohammad Fahim, has gone to Tajikistan for talks with officials from Russia and neighboring countries.

Alliance forces launched new attacks in three northern provinces on Sunday and have taken at least one district from the ruling Taliban movement, the Pakistan-based Afghan news service said.

The advances by General Rashid Dostum, who leads a force of minority ethnic Uzbeks, were in an area where the Taliban said they shot down a helicopter on Saturday, after earlier shooting down a pilotless spy plane. The opposition forces seized Zare district in Balkh province, some 100 kilometers west of the Taliban-held provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif, on Saturday night, AIP reported, quoting its sources in the area.