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Search for bin Laden goes on

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Nearly two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pakistani troops have begun moving -- gingerly -- into a remote tribal belt where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda fugitives might be hiding.

Officials, however, say they have no evidence the terrorist mastermind is there, and a brief military foray last week came up empty-handed. Bin Laden, they say, has melted into the mountains.

"It has been a long time since we have heard anything" about his whereabouts, said Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, who as head of the Interior Ministry's crisis unit is in charge of cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism. "We have received no electronic intercepts or anything to indicate where he is."

Under intense pressure from both the United States and Afghanistan, Pakistani troops have reluctantly moved into several tribal areas in the ultraconservative North West Frontier Province -- including Waziristan and Mohmand, hunting for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The government has historically exercised virtually no control over the areas that border Afghanistan, where ethnic Pashtun tribes have maintained a fierce independence for centuries. Pakistani troops rarely venture off of main roads, part of an agreement worked out with tribal elders.

When Pakistani troops have come, they have not been warmly received.

In Bannu, a tribal city on the edge of Waziristan, a rocket attack late Friday greeted a contingent of Pakistani soldiers that helicoptered into the tiny airport. Residents said the troops left Saturday afternoon, and an Associated Press reporter in the area found the facility all but deserted on Sunday.

The three rockets, with a range of about 15 miles, were probably fired from within Waziristan, said Nawaz Khan, a Bannu police official involved in the investigation.

"They were most probably fired from the tribal area," said Khan. The rockets struck empty land on the airport grounds and caused no damage. American intelligence officials believe, as they have for months, that bin Laden is in the mountainous region along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they do not have a more precise fix than that. His chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, is thought to accompany him. Bin Laden was last heard from on April 7, exhorting Muslims in a tape obtained by the AP to rise up against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other governments he claimed were "agents of America." Fresh television images of the Al Qaeda leader, however, have not been seen for more than a year and a half.

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