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Saturday, September 23, 2006

France unable to confirm report bin Laden is dead

PARIS, Sept 23 (Reuters) - France said it could not confirm a report on Saturday that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had died in Pakistan last month.

The French regional daily L'Est Republicain, published in Nancy, quoted a document from the DGSE foreign intelligence service as saying the Saudi secret services were convinced bin Laden had died of typhoid in late August.

French President Jacques Chirac told reporters after a summit with leaders of Germany and Russia that bin Laden's death "has not been confirmed in any way whatsoever, and so I have no comment to make".

Officials in Pakistan and the United States, which has made capturing bin Laden a priority, were unable to confirm the account.

"It's quite possible there was some talk of this, but in terms of being able to confirm this, that I can't do," said a U.S. counterterrorism official who declined to be identified.

In Paris, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie ordered a probe into the leaking of the classified DGSE document.

A senior Pakistani government official said Islamabad had not received any information from any foreign government that would corroborate the story.

The Saudi Interior Ministry was not available for comment.

"If anyone was in the picture, I doubt it would be Saudi intelligence," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

"Even if Saudi Arabia had information, they'd pass it on to the United States, not France. It doesn't ring true."


The French newspaper printed what it said was a copy of the report, dated Sept. 21, and said it had been passed on to Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin the same day.

"According to a usually reliable source, the Saudi services are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead," it read.

"The information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al Qaeda fell victim, while he was in Pakistan on Aug. 23, 2006, to a very serious case of typhoid that led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs."

The report, which was stamped "confidential defence" and with the initials of the French secret service, said Saudi Arabia had first heard the information on Sept. 4 and was waiting for more details before making an official announcement.

Another U.S. intelligence official, who declined to be named, said bin Laden had long been rumoured to be suffering from kidney ailments and receiving dialysis:

"We have believed him to be in declining health for some time and there have been other rumours of his demise."

He said bin Laden had "minimal operational involvement at this time" in al Qaeda.

The Saudi-born bin Laden was based in Afghanistan until the Taliban government there was overthrown by U.S.-backed forces in 2001. Since then, U.S. and Pakistani officials have regularly said they believe he is hiding somewhere on the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

His last videotaped message was released in late 2004, but several low-quality audio tapes have been released this year.

Senior U.S. intelligence figures have cautioned against assuming that bin Laden's death or capture would automatically have a substantial impact in the war on terrorism.

They note that the death in June of al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has failed to lead to any let-up in the violence there.
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