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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 05:40 GMT
CIA missile 'hits al-Qaeda leaders'
A US soldier in Kandahar, Afghanistan
The US is scouring Afghanistan for al-Qaeda
A missile fired from a pilotless CIA plane is reported to have hit a group of senior al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, killing at least one of them.

A US official told Reuters news agency that a CIA Predator drone had fired a Hellfire anti-tank missile by remote control into a group of al-Qaeda members on Monday night.

"At least one was killed and possibly others. It is not clear who the individual was," the official, who declined to be named, said.

Predator drone
Unmanned spy planes are the latest US weapon

But a senior Europe-based US security official says al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and hundreds of his supporters appear to have escaped from Afghanistan.

Frank Spicka, the head of Interpol's terrorism division, told the London-based Financial Times that the trail on the al-Qaeda leadership had "gone fairly cold".

News of the missile strike came after CIA director George Tenet warned that al-Qaeda was planning more attacks against the United States and its allies.

He said the group remained the most serious and immediate threat facing America.

Al-Qaeda leaders still at large are working to reconstitute the organisation and resume its terrorist operations

CIA director George Tenet

The person reported to have been killed by the missile strike was said to be tall, leading to some speculation that it may have been Bin Laden himself, who is about 6ft 4in tall.

But another US official said several al-Qaeda leaders were tall, including Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden's most senior lieutenant.

American CBS News, quoting a senior Pentagon source, said that several al-Qaeda leaders had died when the missile hit the group near the Zawar Khili caves.

Mr Spicka's comments suggested the hunt for al-Qaeda members will have to go beyond Afghanistan.

He told the FT: "There is growing evidence that many al-Qaeda fighters were evacuated from Afghanistan before the major military offensive and it is safe to assume that many have entrenched themselves elsewhere in the world.

"There is certainly a possibility that Bin Laden and others are being harboured by countries that have large areas which are not controllable."

Mr Spicka was transferred to Interpol's headquarters in France from the US secret service last year.

Biological weapons

Mr Tenet told the US Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that he did not know if Bin Laden was dead or alive but he believed that Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was alive.

Osama Bin Laden
The US does not know if Osama Bin Laden is alive

He said that the US should be prepared for a "long war", adding that al-Qaeda had not been destroyed.

"Al-Qaeda leaders still at large are working to reconstitute the organisation and resume its terrorist operations," he said.

Mr Tenet said the network might be planning attacks on the Winter Olympics - due to begin in Salt Lake City at the weekend - as well as US and allied targets around the world.

Al-Qaeda is likely to continue using conventional weapons - but is also trying to acquire chemical and biological weapons, he added.

Mr Tenet said the network was thought to be trying to build a so-called "dirty" nuclear bomb, adding that he thought some "tactical co-operation" was possible with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The CIA director would not discuss details about the whereabouts of Bin Laden and Omar in the open session of the committee hearing.

When asked by Senator Pat Roberts why the CIA could not get close to Bin Laden, he suggested that an agent had, but refused to elaborate.

Mr Tenet went on to reinforce President George W Bush's assertion that North Korea, Iran and Iraq were the world's most menacing countries.

And he warned that Russia and China were trying to win money and influence by exporting weapons technology to them.

See also:

22 Nov 01 | Americas
Spy plane hunting Bin Laden
07 Feb 02 | Americas
US resumes Camp X-Ray flights
06 Feb 02 | Americas
'American Taleban' to stay in jail
22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Al-Qaeda's origins and links
18 Jan 02 | World
Global raids target al-Qaeda
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: What next for al-Qaeda?
02 Jan 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Al-Qaeda to struggle on
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