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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 18:13 GMT
Bin Laden mystery baffles media
Where is Osama Bin Laden? This is a $25 million question as that's the reward the US has put on the head of the person it describes as public enemy number one.
The Taleban ambassador to Pakistan recently said he had no information about Bin Laden's whereabouts. Other reports said the Taleban had lost all contact with Bin Laden over the past two weeks.
Newspapers around the world are at a loss as to where he might be.
But Arabic-language newspapers and those in Afghanistan's neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, have proved a rich source of locally-circulated rumours and speculation on the subject.
Most papers agree that Bin Laden must still be in Afghanistan. Opinions vary as to the location of his hideout.
The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun quoted a Pakistan military intelligence agency official as saying "Bin Laden is hiding out with 50 to 60 Arab soldiers in the east of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, in the mountainous area near the border of Pakistan".
Al-Jazeera TV placed the United States' most wanted suspect in the district of Maruf.
The TV station quoted "Taleban officials" as saying "one of the rumours here is that he is in the district of Maruf, which is situated between the provinces of Zabol and Kandahar".
Pakistani intelligence services told the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Zaman that Bin Laden had been spotted by their men "in the caves situated in the northern part of Oruzgan Province in central Afghanistan, which has not come under the US air attacks and which is known for its difficult terrain".
Iran's Siyasat-e Ruz suggested that "to-ing and fro-ing down the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan would not be an easy option for Bin Laden".
The terrain is difficult and the Northern Alliance is rapidly expanding its area of control. The paper reckoned, however, that Bin Laden's battle-hardened and well-trained men could "pull this off".
Pakistan's porous borders?
Many Pakistani, Indian and Iranian papers fear that Bin Laden might flee to Pakistan.
Iran's Siyasat-e Ruz said this option could be attractive to Bin Laden "because of his influence in Pakistan's north-western tribal areas".
"Pakistan is the best bridge for Bin Laden to cross because he can then travel to Somalia, the Philippines," the paper said.
Another Iranian paper, Entekhab, speculated that Bin Laden might flee to Kashmir because "he is perceived to be a hero" there.
Some believe it would not be that hard for Bin Laden to cross over into Pakistan because of what one paper said were its "porous borders".
"Pakistan's western borders with Afghanistan have, after the collapse of Taleban power, suddenly become overly sensitive with all manners of uncertainties and possibilities," The News of Pakistan said.
al-Qaeda 'crossed border'
The fears of Bin Laden fleeing to Pakistan may well be justified. Some reports said Bin Laden's associates had already found refuge there.
Speaking to the London-based Arabic language Al-Zaman on the phone from Peshawar, Abd-al-Basit Anwar of the Afghan Northern Alliance said: "Thousands of al-Qaeda members have asked for the protection of Pashtun tribal leaders living on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border after crossing the border with their weapons."
Martyrdom or Iraq?
As Bin Laden is running out of sanctuaries, reportedly considering suicide and martyrdom, some papers are wondering whether death would be his best bet.
Iran's Siyasat-e Ruz suggested for instance that the USA would prefer to have Bin Laden dead rather than alive. "It would not be in its interests to arrest him," the paper said.
"If Osama is tried publicly, his trial will be turned into a trial of Washington's discriminatory and unjust policies in various parts of the world, particularly the Middle East," the paper warned, using its habitual anti-US tone.
But while Bin Laden is pondering the martyrdom option, he may well be cheered by an offer of asylum from the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussain, reported by the Pakistani daily Ummat.
Quoting "highly informed sources", the paper said, "Saddam has offered immediate asylum to all Taleban leaders, including prominent Arab mujahid Osama Bin Laden."
"If they are willing to leave Afghanistan, the Iraqi government would arrange their evacuation by special planes," it added.
BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.
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