Saturday, September 23, 2006

U.S. can't confirm bin Laden death report: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is unable to confirm a French newspaper report that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to have died last month in Pakistan, a U.S. counterterrorism official said on Saturday.

"We cannot confirm the account," said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. "It's quite possible (that) there was some talk of this, but in terms of being able to confirm this, that I can't do."

The French regional daily L'Est Republicain reported that, according to a French secret service report, Saudi Arabia was convinced that bin Laden died of typhoid in Pakistan in late August. The French government has said it could not confirm the report and would investigate the intelligence leak.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment and was looking into the reports.

Media reports suggesting that bin Laden was dead, seriously wounded or in ill health have surfaced periodically over the years, especially during lengthy periods of time without taped messages from the al Qaeda leader.

U.S. officials have suggested that his death would be accompanied by a surge of e-mail and telephone chatter among bereaved al Qaeda members, if not an actual announcement from the militant network.

But officials said they were not aware of any such chatter in recent weeks.

A factor fueling persistent speculation about bin Laden's health is that he has not been seen on a new videotape since late 2004, while his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has made a number of videotaped appearances.

But bin Laden, 49, a Saudi-born fugitive with a $25 million price on his head, has released several audiotapes this year, which U.S. intelligence has authenticated.

His latest audiotape surfaced in July. In it, he warned Iraq's Shi'ite majority of retaliation for attacks on Sunni Arabs and said al Qaeda would fight the United States anywhere in the world.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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