AMERICAN OFFICIALS are growing more confident they have cornered Osama bin Laden and that capturing or kil-ling him is just a matter of time.
Despite one report from the Taliban at the weekend that Mr bin Laden had left the country, US officials say they have every reason to believe he is still in Afghanistan. Extra special forces have poured into the country since Thursday and most of them are now dedicated to rooting out members of Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network in the mountain caves of the east and south-east - particularly in regions near the Pakistan border that might be accessible from Kabul and Kandahar.
"It's getting harder for him [Mr bin Laden] to hide as more and more territory is removed from Taliban control," the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said in one of a flurry of weekend interviews by senior Bush administration officials - all apparently intended to give the impression that America's "public enemy number one" is running out of road to travel.
There have been conflicting intelligence reports on Mr bin Laden's precise whereabouts. One, cited in The Independent yesterday, placed him in the Tora Bora area, near Jalalabad. Another, based on a statement by a Northern Alliance commander, put him in the Maruf district, about 80 miles east of Kandahar.
American officials admit they do not know his exact location but, for days, Navy F-18 fighter jets, as well as B-52 and B-1B bombers, have been bombarding underground bunkers to the south and south- east of Kabul in what military planners told The New York Times yesterday were strikes based on solid intelligence.
Although some official statements by Washington are undoubtedly based as much on bravado as hard fact, it does seem that Mr bin Laden and the senior al-Qa'ida leadership have been taken sorely by surprise at the rapid collapse of the Taliban across much of Afghanistan in the past week. …