KABUL, Afghanistan - Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar are not believed to be in Afghanistan anymore, the U.S. ambassador said Thursday, raising fresh questions as to the whereabouts of the elusive terror mastermind.
Zalmay Khalilzad, tapped by President Bush to be the next U.S. envoy to Iraq, did not reveal where the two might be hiding or whether his comment was based on new intelligence.
"Mullah Omar is not in Afghanistan. I do not believe that Osama is in Afghanistan," Khalilzad said. His comments at a news conference in Kabul came a day after a purported Taliban commander said the pair were alive and well.
American officials have long said they believed bin Laden was hiding in rugged mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Khalilzad did not address whether bin Laden may be in the mountainous region - but on the Pakistan side.
Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said during a visit to Australia this week that he also doesn't "have a clear idea" where bin Laden is hiding.
Asked about bin Laden's whereabouts at a briefing Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said: "Who knows? ... I think there are other people who believe that (bin Laden is not in Afghanistan.) But we've talked a lot about this. When we've got him, we've got him."
Khalilzad defended the failure to catch bin Laden, saying, "It is not an easy job to find one person ... in a vast region. It requires timely intelligence."
"A lot of progress" has been made in fighting al-Qaida since Sept. 11, 2001, Khalilzad said, adding that it was no longer clear how much control bin Laden still has over the terror network.
"Significant numbers of the leaders of al-Qaida have been captured. Their network has been disrupted ... the financial network has also been disrupted," he said. "Sooner or later I believe firmly that he (bin Laden) will be caught."
On Wednesday, Pakistan's Geo television broadcast an interview with a man it identified as Taliban military commander Mullah Akhtar Usmani, who said bin Laden was "absolutely fine." He would not specify where bin Laden was hiding.
The man - whose identity was impossible to verify because a black turban shielded his face - said the Taliban are still organized and its senior leaders hold regular consultations. "Our discipline is strong. We have regular meetings. We make programs," he said.
He said Omar does not attend the meetings, but "decisions come from his side."
Gen. Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said the interview, which was recorded last week, was "not serious" and wouldn't help the rebels.
"He was just saying the same thing as usual," Azimi said. "This doesn't make any difference in terms of improving their military or political situation."
Khalilzad also said he feared the rebels are likely to ramp up efforts to subvert the Sept. 18 polls - the next key step toward democracy. "As we get closer to the elections, they are likely to intensify their efforts to ... derail the elections," he said.
"We have a good plan in place to deal with" the threat, he said, but didn't elaborate.
President Hamid Karzai's administration has warned that Taliban-led rebels and al-Qaida militants have launched a campaign of violence to undermine the polls, and there has been a major increase in attacks since winter ended in March.
In the latest violence, a policeman was killed while trying to defuse a mine planted on a road, while a teacher was shot dead and two boys were killed when a vehicle in which they were riding in drove over a land mine, officials said.
Meanwhile in central Uruzgan province, Afghan security forces captured a regional Taliban chief blamed for a spate of attacks on Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces, army commander Gen. Muslim Amid said. He added the man would be handed over to coalition forces for interrogation.