Faisal Saleh Hayat said bin Ladin's whereabouts were still unknown, but his al-Qaida network had been weakened with the help of "vital information" gleaned from his key aides, arrested in recent months.

   

"As a result, slowly and gradually, the noose is tightening around Usama and his aides," the official APP news agency quoted him as saying.

 

Extensive arrests

   

Hundreds of Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida suspects - including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, suspected of masterminding the 11 September attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, one of the top aides of bin Ladin - have been arrested in Pakistan since it

became a key ally in the US-led “war on terror”.

 

"Time, space and options are becoming limited by the day for Usama and all those linked to him"

Faisal Saleh Hayat,        Pakistan Interior Minister

"Time, space and options are becoming limited by the day for Usama and all those linked to him," Hayat added.

   

Bin Ladin's whereabouts have been a mystery since the fall of his hosts --the Afghan Taliban government - in late 2001, with some speculating that he might be hiding in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

   

But Hayat demanded proof for that. "Those who say that he is in Pakistan should come out with a solid proof for that and we will take action," he said.