Osama bin Laden and fugitive Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar are alive and well, a purported Taliban commander has said in a television interview.
Pakistan's Geo television broadcast the interview with the man it identified as Taliban military commander Mullah Akhtar Usmani, a former Afghan aviation minister.
A black turban shielded the man's face, making it impossible to recognise him or verify his identity. He wore a gray jacket, and an AK-47 rifle was propped next to him as he spoke in front of a red-patterned, Afghan-style rug.
In response to a question, the man said he would not specify where bin Laden was hiding.
"Thanks be to God, he is absolutely fine," he said in the interview broadcast on Wednesday.
The man said the Taliban were still organised and senior Taliban leaders held regular consultations. "Our discipline is strong. We have regular meetings. We make programmes," he said.
He said Omar did not attend the meetings but "decisions come from his side." He did not say where those meetings took place.
"The belief in the intelligence community is that he's (bin Laden) still in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border"
US intelligence official
Geo said the interview was recorded last week but declined to say where.
In Washington, a US intelligence official said: "The belief in the intelligence community is that he's (bin Laden) still in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border."
It seemed reasonable to think that former Taliban officials still gather to meet, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
General Zaher Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry, said on Wednesday that the interview was "not serious" and would not help the rebels.
He questioned why the man claiming to be Usmani was afraid to show his face, though he stopped short of questioning his identity.
"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."
Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, the government's chief spokesman Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and officials at the Interior Ministry were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.
Usami claims he is still receiving
instructions from Mullah Omar
A senior journalist at the independent station said the interview was done near the Afghan town of Spin Boldak, close to the Pakistani border.
The interview was conducted in broken Urdu, Pakistan's main language and the language in which Geo broadcasts most of its programmes. Most senior Taliban speak Pashtu.
The outgoing US ambassador to Afghanistan said on Thursday he did not believe bin Laden or Mullah Omar were in the country.
"Mullah Omar is not is Afghanistan; I do not believe Osama is in Afghanistan," Zalmay Khalilzad told a news conference, without saying where they were thought to be.
"Sooner or later I believe firmly that he will be caught... but this is a long-term struggle"
Khalilzad, who has been nominated by US President George Bush as the next US envoy to Iraq, said it remained symbolically important to catch bin Laden, even though it was unclear how much operational charge he now had of his network.
"Sooner or later I believe firmly that he will be caught," he said. "But this is a long-term struggle."
Khalilzad, who has repeatedly accused Afghanistan's neighbour, Pakistan, of sheltering fighters, said capturing bin Laden required the cooperation of law enforcement agencies of a variety of countries.
In speaking about Omar, the man referred to the Taliban chief by his self-proclaimed title of "ameerul momineen" - "leader of the faithful."
"Ameerul momineen is our chief and leader. No one is against him. Our ameerul momineen is alive. He is all right. There is no problem. He is not sick. He is my commander. He gives me instructions," the man said.
Asked whether he has direct contact with Omar, the man said: "I will not say whether I meet with him or not. But he is giving instructions."