Feb 16, 1999

Bin Laden said to remain in Afghanistan

February 16, 1999
Web posted at: 12:01 a.m. EST (0501 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Islamic militant Osama bin Laden is widely believed still to be hiding in Afghanistan, although his relations with the ruling Taliban are reportedly strained.

The exiled Saudi billionaire is accused of masterminding the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa last August.

Reports indicate bin Laden disappeared from the supervision of Taliban movement and left the southern Afghan city of Kandahar sometime before Saturday, fueling speculation that he fled to another country.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds-al-Arabi told CNN on Monday that bin Laden's "disappearance" comes after he was snubbed by Taliban religious leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Bin Laden was left to wait outside for two hours when he traveled to congratulate Omar last month during the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which followed Ramadan, the paper reported.

"Bin Laden understood that he is not wanted any more in Afghanistan, and he decided to find other places," said editor Abdel bari Atwan.

Omar has been unhappy over bin Laden's statements calling for the deaths of all Americans, which the religious leader does not believe is justified by the Koran.

Omar said he has also been under intense pressure from the United States and the government of neighboring Pakistan to extradite bin Laden.

Risk of flight too great

At the time of bin Laden's disappearance, Taliban authorities said it would take three or four weeks before the Taliban has more solid information his whereabouts

But a U.S. intelligence official told CNN on Monday that reports of bin Laden's disappearance should be "taken with a grain of salt" and that Taliban authorities know of his whereabouts.

An Islamic cleric with ties to the Taliban told Reuters news agency that bin Laden had merely gone into hiding in Afghanistan and had no plans to leave the country.

A Saudi dissident speculated that bin Laden would be welcomed in Chechnya or Yemen, but that the risks of capture in traveling to those places was too great.

Osama bin Laden is "not a man to take that kind of risk," the dissident told CNN.

Taliban kept watchful eye on guest

The London-based al-Hayat newspaper quoted witnesses in Kandahar who said they believed that bin Laden had left merely to go elsewhere in the country.

Taliban authorities in Kandahar clamped down on bin Laden before his disappearance. They had taken away his cellular phone, screened his visitors and instructed guards to watch his movements.

Bin Laden is one of 12 men indicted by U.S. authorities in the twin embassy bombings on August 7 that killed 213 people in Nairobi, Kenya, and 11 people in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

CNN's Peter Bergen and Reuters contributed to this report