Lutfullah Mashal, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, on Wednesday said commanders helped the al-Qaida leader escape from the Tora Bora mountains as US warplanes and Afghan forces attacked his hideout near the Pakistan border in late 2001.

"The help was provided because of monetary aid availed by al-Qaida and also partly because of ideological issues," Mashal said.

"Osama along with other al-Qaida people managed to go to Parachinar [in Pakistan] at the time and then Pakistani forces battled the al-Qaida runaways, killing around 70 of them," Mashal added, referring to an area in Pakistan's Kurram tribal region.

He said commanders loyal to Maulvi Yunus Khalis had helped the al-Qaida leader escape. The whereabouts of Khalis, a top mujahidin leader from the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, is unknown.

Mashal told private Pakistani television channel Geo on Tuesday that US forces made a mistake in entrusting the capture of bin Laden to Afghan commanders. 

Bin Laden is said to be in Pakistani
tribal lands on the Afghan border

Mashal said he was present in the Tora Bora mountains during the December 2001 operation, and that while US forces were not there in uniform, green berets in plain clothes, some
disguised in Uzbek style dress, were present.

He said that while 800 or 900 Arabs fled Tora Bora for Pakistan's Khyber tribal region, senior al-Qaida leaders trekked across to Parachinar on foot, mule and horseback with the help of some Sulemankheil tribal elders.

Camps

Mashal said bin Laden later re-crossed the border to Khost where Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani gave him refuge, before returning to Pakistan, this time heading for Miranshah, the main town in another tribal region, North Waziristan.

Mashal said he had gone to Pakistan himself, searching for bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri in camps of al-Qaida fighters at Parachinar, Shawal, Daddakheil and Miranshah.

"I visited all the camps, where there were Chechens, Uzbeks, but I was not able to find clues about the whereabouts of Osama or al-Zawahri," he told Geo.

Mashal suspects the al-Qaida leader is still moving around Pakistan's tribal lands, guarded by Taliban and Arab fighters.

"His exact location is not clear for he changes his location and is on the move ... He is guarded by Haqqani's men and Yemenis."

Reports denied 

"His exact location is not clear for he changes his location and is on the move ... He is guarded by Haqqani's men and Yemenis"

Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman,
Afghan Interior Ministry

US officials have repeatedly said bin Laden, who has evaded a US-led manhunt since the 11 September 2001 attacks, is probably still hiding in the rugged mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden - blamed for the attacks on US cities - and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

The US military in Afghanistan denied on Wednesday that one of its officers had told reporters that bin Laden was seeking medical attention.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, citing US Colonel Don McGraw in a briefing with reporters in Kabul, had reported earlier in the day that the world's most wanted man was in poor health and was trying to obtain medical attention.
 
But a US military spokeswoman in Kabul said McGraw had not said that, and had presented the reporters with no new report about the fugitive al-Qaida leader.