Afghan warlord says he helped bin Laden escape

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An Afghan rebel leader wanted by the United States claimed credit for helping Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri escape a massive U.S.-led hunt in eastern Afghanistan just over five years ago.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister in early 1990s, said in an interview aired on Pakistan’s private Geo television channel on Thursday that he met bin Laden and Zawahri after fighters loyal to his Hizb-e-Islami group helped the two al Qaeda leaders escape from the Tora Bora region in late 2001.

“After the American attack on Afghanistan, I directed my people to evacuate our guest brothers to safer places,” said Hekmatyar,

“Some valiant and honest mujahideen of Hizb-e-Islami evacuated Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri along with some other comrades and transferred them to a safer place,” he said.

“I met with them there.”

The authenticity of the interview could not be independently confirmed, but interviewer Saleem Safi told Reuters that it was conducted inside Afghanistan nearly three weeks ago.

Though the whereabouts of both al Qaeda leaders has remained a mystery since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. forces are believed to have come closest to trapping bin Laden when he retreated to a complex of caves in mountainous Tora Bora region near the Pakistan border .

The best guess about bin Laden’s whereabouts remains somewhere on the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Zawahri is believed to be hiding in the same region, but analysts say it is unlikely the two men are together.

Hekmatyar’s whereabouts have also remained unknown, though he is believed to be hiding in eastern Afghanistan.

Wearing a black turban and sporting a gray beard, the bespectacled militant blamed for much of the destruction of the Kabul in the 1990s civil war in Afghanistan, said his Hizb-e-Islami group had no organisational link with al Qaeda or Taliban though he had tried to ally with the Taliban.

“The process of negotiation with the Taliban has been disconnected, but if they feel the need then we are ready.”

Hekmatyar shot to prominence during the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when U.S. and Saudi money covertly bankrolled leaders of the mujahideen.