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Pakistan denies bin Laden in country

Counters US claim Al Qaeda training there

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan yesterday rejected a claim by the US intelligence chief that Osama bin Laden and his deputy were hiding in northwestern Pakistan, and that Al Qaeda was setting up camps near the Afghan border.

President General Pervez Musharraf, however, acknowledged that foreign militants were in Pakistan's tribal regions along the Afghan border and warned them to leave, the state-run news agency reported. It was not clear from the report whether Musharraf named any particular militants.

Musharraf spoke a day after new US intelligence chief Mike McConnell told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Al Qaeda is trying to set up training camps and other operations in Pakistan tribal areas near Afghanistan.

"It's something we're very worried about and very concerned about," McConnell said. US intelligence officials believe that bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are trying to establish an Al Qaeda base in the region, he said. McConnell noted the camps are in an area that has never been governed by any state or outside power.

"We deny it," Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao told The Associated Press, referring to McConnell's remarks.

Sherpao told The Associated Press there were no Al Qaeda training camps in his country and US officials had not provided any intelligence suggesting there were.

On a visit to Pakistan on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney met with Musharraf to seek his aid in foiling an anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban and Al Qaeda against coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Cheney was accompanied by Deputy CIA Director Stephen Kappes, suggesting that the US officials were prepared to buttress their allegations about Al Qaeda operations with intelligence data.

Musharraf told Cheney that Pakistan was doing all it could to fight the militants, his office said.

Musharraf vowed yesterday to take "stiff action" to expel foreign militants from Pakistan's mountainous border regions, the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.

"These people are putting Pakistan in danger. These people should leave and go, otherwise we will have to deal with them , and we are dealing with them," APP quoted him as saying.

US officials are concerned about a peace deal Pakistan signed with tribal leaders of the North Waziristan region curtailing cross-border attacks by militants.

Musharraf returned some of the tribes' weapons, released some prisoners , and withdrew from posts inside North Waziristan.

At Tuesday's hearing, Lieutenant General Michael Maples, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, said US intelligence believes Al Qaeda's training and related capabilities increased as a result of the deal.