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Sunday, 18 November, 2001, 12:14 GMT
Where is Bin Laden?

Jalalabad: A journalist taken blindfolded to meet Bin Laden last week, believes he was near the city.
Khost: Geologists say rocks seen in a Bin Laden video can be traced to the area.
Kandahar: US and British officials believe he may be hiding in bunkers near the Taleban stronghold.
Oruzgan province: Bin Laden could be here in a network of caves dug deep into the mountains.

Speculation is rife about the location of Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man.

There have been conflicting newspaper reports about where his hideout may be.

The Northern Alliance has claimed he is in hiding about 80 miles east of the Taleban's southern stronghold of Kandahar. But the Taleban ambassador to Pakistan insisted that he was no longer in an area under their control.

On Saturday, the ambassador had said that Bin Laden had left Afghanistan, but later changed his story.

We do not know where Osama Bin Laden is. He is inside Afghanistan somewhere

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taleban envoy to Pakistan

The contradictory reports came as the United States stepped up its efforts to hunt down Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network.

US planes are targeting caves thought to be used as hideouts by Bin Laden and there are plans to deploy more ground troops in Afghanistan.

But where exactly is this Saudi-born dissident who is believed to be always on the move, from cave to cave? And is he even still in Afghanistan?

Intelligence sources seem to believe he is - most probably in the mountains which cover about two-thirds of the country.

The US hopes that the capture of Kabul and interviews with defecting Taleban fighters will yield useful intelligence about his movements.

Bin Laden 'ruse'

The last confirmed sighting of Bin Laden situates him somewhere near the city of Jalalabad, east of the capital, where he is said to have a complex of training camps.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden believes the Americans will kill him
Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who interviewed him last week, says he was wrapped in a blanket and driven in a jeep with covered windows for five hours from Kabul, travelling over hilly roads.

That could place him about 75 kilometres from the capital. The colder temperature and the sound of anti-aircraft fire suggest he was driven north.

Mr Mir says he was then ushered into a small, unfurnished room with blankets covering the walls. He believes it was a mud house arranged temporarily for the interview.

But the Pakistani journalist says all this was probably a ruse to throw pursuers off his trail.

"He is fighting somewhere else, maybe in the south. But he decided to give the interview to me in the north so I would tell people it was in the north," he told Reuters news agency.

Bomb-proof caves

US and British officials also believe he may be in the south, close to Kandahar, where the Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is based.

He is fighting somewhere else, maybe in the south

Hamid Mir
Bin Laden's bases here are reportedly guarded by anti-aircraft guns.

The mountains in this area also have many caves and bunkers with remote and hidden entrances, where hundreds of people can hide.

The tunnels, which are thousands of metres inside mountains and can be more than two storeys high, were built by Afghan fighters during the war against the Soviets.

They are so deep that they were impervious to intense bombing by Soviet forces.

Bin Laden later expanded these caves, reinforcing the interiors with concrete and sealing them with steel doors.

Special forces

Bin Laden and his followers have also used a network of caves in the mountains of the Oruzgan province, north of Kandahar, to hide in the past.

Al-Qaeda is known to have a small base in the area.

Afghan mountains
Mountains cover two-thirds of the land
Another possibility that has been raised is that Bin Laden may be hiding south of the city of Khost in Paktia province.

Geologists say rocks seen in a video released by Bin Laden video after the US bombing began can be traced to the region.

The area boasts deep underground bunkers built during the war against the Soviets, big enough to hide tanks and other weapons.

Bin Laden has a camp here which was hit by US cruise missiles in 1998 but not destroyed.

Escape option

Military experts say that special forces will be needed to rout Bin Laden from his bunkers and caves.

That requires good local intelligence, including reliable informants, which has so far proved difficult.

But the US believes the net is closing on the Saudi-born dissident. He himself said in a recent interview that he expected the Americans to kill him and he was ready to die.

Another option is that Bin Laden could attempt to flee Afghanistan altogether.

Reports have placed Bin Laden in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the Indonesian island of Lombok. Others have suggested he might try to move to Somalia, Sudan, Iraq or even neighbouring Pakistan where support for him is high in some areas.

But as one unnamed diplomat from the US-led coalition said: "It is credible to believe he is in Afghanistan. Beyond that, quite frankly, we don't know. If we did he'd be dead or captured".

The BBC's David Shukman
"The key to finding Bin Laden may be treachery"
The BBC's John Simpson reports from Kabul
on the house that Osama Bin Laden fled
See also:

14 Nov 01 | UK
British troops on standby
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Hunt for Bin Laden hots up
12 Nov 01 | Americas
Powers search for Afghan settlement
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The Taleban collapse
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