Bin Laden Missing, Claims Taliban; AFGHANISTAN: United States Believes Hard-Line Regime May Be Trying to Find Way out of Fix with Terror Mastermind

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OSAMA bin Laden, the man believed to have masterminded the September 11 attacks on the United States, has been missing since Thursday, according to Taliban officials, but the United States does not believe them.

It is thought the Taliban could be trying to elude President George W Bush's demands to hand over bin Laden or face retribution along with him.

US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday, "We're not going to be deterred by comments that he may be missing.

We simply don't believe it."

Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had sent emissaries to inform bin Laden of a decision on Thursday by Afghanistan's Muslim clergy that he should leave the country voluntarily at a time of his choosing.

Zaeef said Taliban authorities had been searching for bin Laden for the past two days "but he has not been traced".

The Taliban leadership has said in the past that it is able to convey information to bin Laden through radio communication with security personnel who travel with him.

Exiled Saudi dissident bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group, has had sanctuary in Afghanistan for five years.

President Bush has insisted that the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan, must hand over bin Laden and members of his alleged terror network, allow US access to bin Laden's camps and free two detained American aid workers or face military action.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who says he will be willing to provide documentary evidence linking bin Laden with the attacks on September 11, said yesterday, "The Taliban may be trying to find a way to get themselves out of this terrible box they're in."

The Afghan Islamic Press, a private news agency based in Islamabad, also reported the Taliban claim. It quoted Omar's spokesman Abdul Hayee as saying "guest Osama" had gone missing and that efforts were being made to locate him.

Hayee said that once bin Laden was found he would be told of the clerical decision, "then it would be his decision whether he wants to stay in Afghanistan or not".

The anti-terrorist military build-up in the region is continuing but Mr Powell said military action would not be on the scale of that seen in the Gulf War.

He said, "Let's not assume there will be a large-scale move. I don't think we should even consider a large-scale war at this point. …