Tehran/Islamabad, Feb. 28 (Agencies): Rumours today swirled about the long-awaited capture of Osama bin Laden after Iran’s state radio, quoting an unnamed source, said he was picked up in Pakistan “a long time ago”.
“The capture of the al Qaida leader has been made some time before, but (US President George W.) Bush is intending to announce it when the American presidential election is held,” the radio reported.
Pakistan foreign minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri initially declined to confirm the report at a news conference with French counterpart Dominique de Villepin, but minutes later termed it incorrect.
The US department of defence, too, denied the report, describing it as “another piece of stray voltage that’s passing around out there”.
In recent weeks, Pakistan has launched a crackdown in tribal areas near its border with Afghanistan to nail al Qaida militants. US forces are backing up the effort from across the frontier in “a hammer and anvil approach”. Pakistani troops had netted 20 suspects this week in an operation in tribal South Waziristan bordering Afghanistan.
The radio said a reporter for its Pashtun service in Peshawar “confirmed the news” that bin Laden had been captured in a tribal region in Pakistan. He said the news was from “a very reliable source in Peshawar, Pakistan”, but the source was not identified.
“Osama bin Laden has been arrested a long time ago, but Bush is intending to use it for propaganda manoeuvring in the presidential election,” he said.
The report said US defence secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s visit to the region this week was in connection with the arrest.
When Saddam Hussein was smoked out in December, there were similar rumours that he had been captured earlier and set up in the spider hole.
Bin Laden’s head on a platter would be a big boost to Bush’s presidential chances, increasingly threatened by Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry and resentment over the Iraq war.
Shamim Shahed, the bureau chief of The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Peshawar, was cited by the director of the radio’s Pashtun service as the source of the report. But Shahed denied saying Osama had been captured. “I never said this, but I have for the last year been saying that he is not far away. He is within their (the US’) reach, and they can declare him arrested anytime,” he said.
Lt Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, said: “Things are going well, and we believe we will eventually catch all the leaders of al Qaida, but I know nothing of that report.”
Larry di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman who travelled with Rumsfeld this week to Afghanistan, also denied the report of bin Laden’s capture.
The Iranian correspondent responsible for the report said the radio had reported bin Laden’s capture a year ago. But he said a new source had told him bin Laden had been seized “a long time ago”. “It could be one month ago, it could be one year, but he has been arrested,” he said.
While declining to reveal his source or how his source knew of the capture, he said: “My source said it and he knows it.”
Washington believes bin Laden masterminded the September 11, 2001, suicide hijack attacks in the US, which killed nearly 3,000 people.