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US sees bin Laden capture in '04

But Pakistan won't allow US operations

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The US military is "sure" it will catch Osama bin Laden this year, perhaps within months, a spokesman declared yesterday, but Pakistan said it would not allow American troops to cross the border in search of the Al Qaeda leader.

Yesterday also was one of the deadliest days for American forces in Afghanistan: Seven soldiers were killed when a weapons cache exploded southwest of the capital. Three other American soldiers were wounded and another was missing after the blast, the US Central Command said.

Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty made the prediction as the Army readied a spring offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts. A US official hinted Wednesday that the offensive might extend into Pakistan.

Bin Laden, suspected of ordering the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, is believed to be holed up somewhere along the mountainous border.

Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Pakistani security official who is coordinating counterterrorism efforts with US officials, said Pakistani policies do not allow US troops to operate in the country.

The US commander in the region, General John Abizaid, said yesterday that American forces will continue conducting "limited military operations" along the Afghan border, but he has no plans to put US troops inside Pakistan against Pakistani wishes.

Since last month's capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, American commanders in Afghanistan have expressed new optimism about finding bin Laden. Hilferty said the military -- the United States has 11,000 troops in the country -- now believes it could seize him within months.

"We have a variety of intelligence and we're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year," Hilferty said, referring to the ousted Taliban's leader. "We've learned lessons from Iraq and we're getting improved intelligence from the Afghan people."

Hilferty declined to comment on where he believed the men might be hiding.

Earlier this week, the American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he expects bin Laden to be brought to justice by year's end.

American forces are pinning hopes for better intelligence from Afghans on new security teams setting up in provincial capitals across a swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The security teams are supposed to open the way for millions of dollars in US development aid and allow the Afghan government to regain control over lawless areas largely populated by ethnic Pashtuns, from which the Taliban drew their main support.

This month alone, about 70 people have died violently, including two international peacekeepers killed by suicide bombers in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bomb attacks.

The spring offensive touted by US defense officials Wednesday would come just when the new security teams are supposed to be up and running, and warmer weather opens the high mountain passes.

Hilferty said he could not talk about future operations.

Pakistani officials said yesterday that they would not allow American forces to use their territory for any new offensive. Cheema said he had not heard of the plan for a spring offensive.

US forces used Pakistani bases and airspace during the campaign that led to the ouster in late 2001 of the Taliban regime, but Pakistan insisted it only provided logistical support.

"As a matter of fact, they [the United States] have not contacted us for this purpose," Cheema said.

A Pakistani intelligence official said Pakistani authorities had no specific information about bin Laden's whereabouts.

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president and a key US ally, would face withering criticism from political opponents, particularly Islamic hard-liners, if American forces were to deploy inside Pakistan.

Abizaid called Musharraf a "strong ally" of the United States and said, "We'll help him where he wants help.

"The idea that we would work uncooperatively with the Pakistanis is not one that I'm entertaining," he said.

Despite periodic reports that the Taliban are making a comeback in Afghanistan, "I believe the Taliban is in deep trouble," both as a military and political force, Abizaid said.

Pakistan says it has arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda men over the past two years; many of them have been handed over to the United States.

Residents have reported seeing a small number of foreign personnel on such operations, but Pakistan denies it.

"We will not allow any foreign troops to conduct any operations in Pakistan," said General Shaukat Sultan, a Pakistani army spokesman. "Whenever they [the United States] ask for such thing, we always decline."

In January, Pakistani forces raided a border village where Al Qaeda fighters were believed to be hiding. The interior minister said 18 suspects were captured.

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