Osama bin Laden was provided safe passage to Pakistan in 2001 by
Afghan commanders paid by al Qaeda and sympathetic to its cause, a senior Afghan
official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Lutfullah Mashal, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, said commanders
helped the al Qaeda leader escape from the Tora Bora mountains as U.S. warplanes
and Afghan forces attacked his hideout near the Pakistan border in late 2001.
"The help was provided because of monetary aid availed by al Qaeda and
also partly because of ideological issues," Mashal said.
"Osama along with other al Qaeda people managed to go to Parachinar (in
Pakistan) at the time and then Pakistani forces battled the al Qaeda runaways,
killing around 70 of them," Mashal added, referring to an area in Pakistan's
Kurram tribal agency.
He said commanders loyal to Maulvi Yunus Khalis had helped the al Qaeda leader
escape. The whereabouts of Khalis, a top mujahideen leader from the war against
the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, is unknown.
Mashal told private Pakistani television channel Geo on Tuesday that U.S. forces
made a mistake in entrusting the capture of bin Laden to Afghan commanders.
Mashal said he was present in the Tora Bora mountains during the December
2001 operation, and that while U.S. forces were not there in uniform, green
berets in plain clothes, some disguised in Uzbek style dress were present.
He said that while 800 or 900 Arabs fled Tora Bora for Pakistan's Khyber tribal
agency, senior al Qaeda leaders trekked across to Parachinar on foot, mule and
horseback with the help of some Sulemankheil tribal elders.
Mashal said bin Laden later re-crossed the border to Khost where Taliban leader
Jalaluddin Haqqani gave him refuge, before returning to Pakistan, this time
heading for Miranshah, the main town in another tribal agency, North Waziristan.
Mashal said he had gone to Pakistan himself, searching for bin Laden and his
deputy Ayman al-Zawahri in camps of al Qaeda militants at Parachinar, Shawal,
Daddakheil and Miranshah.
"I visited all the camps, where there were Chechens, Uzbeks, but I was
not able to find clues about the whereabouts of Osama or al-Zawahri," he
Mashal suspected the al Qaeda leader was still moving around Pakistan's tribal
lands, guarded by Taliban and Arab fighters.
"His exact location is not clear for he changes his location and is on
the move ... He is guarded by Haqqani's men and Yemenis."
U.S. officials have repeatedly said bin Laden, who has evaded a U.S.-led manhunt
since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is probably still hiding in the rugged mountains
between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to hand over
bin Laden, blamed for the attacks on U.S. cities, and overthrew the Taliban
in late 2001.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan denied on Wednesday that one of its officers
had told reporters that bin Laden was seeking medical attention.
The London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, citing U.S. Colonel Don McGraw
in a briefing with reporters in Kabul, had reported earlier in the day that
the world's most wanted man was in poor health and was trying to obtain medical
But a U.S. military spokeswoman in Kabul said McGraw had not said that, and
had presented the reporters with no new report about the fugitive al Qaeda leader.