ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan on Monday denied a newspaper report that the CIA has set up covert bases in the country's remote tribal regions to hunt for Usama bin Laden (search) and stop him from plotting another attack on the United States.
The report in Monday's New York Times, citing anonymous American officials familiar with the operation, said the CIA had concluded that bin Laden was being sheltered by local tribesmen and foreign militants in northwestern Pakistan, and was suspected of controlling an elite terrorist cell that could be aiming to launch a "spectacular" attack against America.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search), who has faced heavy criticism at home for his strong ties with Washington, has previously acknowledged that a small number of American experts were working with Pakistani troops in their operations against Al Qaeda (search) militants. But he has denied that U.S. forces — deployed in their thousands in neighboring Afghanistan — are actively hunting bin Laden on Pakistani soil.
On Monday, officials repeated Pakistan's contention that they have no evidence that the Al Qaeda leader is inside the country, and denied the Times report that the CIA had set up small bases on its soil near the Afghan border in late 2003.
"There are no CIA cells in Pakistan ... in our tribal areas, and there is absolutely no truth in this New York Times report," said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.
Both U.S. and Pakistani generals have said the trail in the hunt for bin Laden has gone cold in the more than three years since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring him. The Al Qaeda leader, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, is still suspected to be hiding some place along the rugged border.
In a television interview broadcast Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) said that bin Laden was "definitely" in the region. He did not say where.
A senior Pakistan counterterrorism official on Monday said U.S. officials had not come up with any intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, although their information had helped nab some Al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan.
"Whenever U.S. intelligence and communication experts come up with some specific information, and they need our help, we organize things, act on their tips, but the operations are conducted by our own security forces," he told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The Times said that Pakistani military officials have strictly supervised the CIA personnel at the alleged bases in Pakistan, limiting their effectiveness.
A senior official of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency denied an allegation in the Times report that militants in the tribal regions may be getting help from some ISI officers. The agency helped build the Taliban militia before Pakistan switched allegiance and threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There is no truth in the allegation," the intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
Earlier this month, President Bush met with Musharraf in Washington and defended Pakistan's cooperation in the hunt for bin Laden, saying its forces had been "incredibly active and very brave" in military operations in the South Waziristan tribal region — a suspected hiding place of the Al Qaeda chief and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri (search).
The operations have killed and arrested hundreds of alleged Al Qaeda sympathizers and busted terror training bases.
On Monday, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan said he couldn't comment on CIA operations. He said American forces were maintaining a relentless search for clues to bin Laden's whereabouts.
"No matter where he is, whether he is in Afghanistan, whether he is in Pakistan or wherever he is, I think we share President Karzai's sentiment that some day he will be apprehended and he will be brought to justice," Maj. Mark McCann told a press briefing in Kabul.