2006-09-25,2:23 PM

World Sceptical Of News Of Osama's 'Death'

PARIS (AFP) - A French intelligence memo suggesting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden might have died of typhoid has been met with scepticism around the world, including the highest levels of the French government.

France, the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all said they had no evidence to support the assertion in the memo, which was published Saturday in the French regional newspaper l'Est Republicain and Sunday in Le Parisien. "To my knowledge, Osama bin Laden is not dead. It is quite simple," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told French television on Sunday.

French President Jacques Chirac on Saturday confirmed the memo was genuine, stating he was "surprised" it had been made public and ordering an investigation into its leak. But he stressed that the information it gave was "in no way confirmed".

However, persistent reports that bin Laden was struck with illness fueled speculation about his fate. The confidential document, drafted by the French foreign intelligence service DGSE and dated September 21, stated that according to a normally reliable source Saudi Arabia's intelligence services were "convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead".

It said the 49-year-old Saudi Islamic militant, who has been held responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, succumbed to typhoid fever in Pakistan between August 23 and September 4. The Saudis were seeking evidence of bin Laden's death, notably by looking for his remains, the memo said.

In response, the Saudi embassy in Washington issued a two-sentence statement saying "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no evidence to support recent media reports that Osama bin Laden is dead". "Information that has been reported otherwise is purely speculative and cannot be independently verified," the statement stressed. It did not, however, address the French intelligence memo nor say whether its evaluation of what Saudi intelligence believed was inaccurate.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice simply said: "No comment, and no knowledge." Several US intelligence officials told US media they had noticed no unusual Internet or communications "chatter" which would likely follow such a momentous development.

Pakistan's interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, told AFP in Islamabad: "No, we do not have any such information with us." Security officials hunting Al-Qaeda in Pakistan rejected the report.

A senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity that "no such information has been shared" by the Saudis and that it was "inconceivable that an event of this nature would remain unnoticed in Pakistan".

Bin Laden has several times been rumoured to have died in the past, only to appear later in audio or video recordings. The last verified message from bin Laden was posted on the Internet on July 1, accusing Iraqi Shiites of waging "genocide" against Sunnis.

A US official said the message was deemed authentic. The last time images of him were seen was in October 2004, in a videotape delivered to the Arab television network Al Jazeera.

Born in Saudi Arabia to a wealthy family with close ties to the royals, bin Laden allegedly funded and directed the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that killed around 3,000 people. His Al-Qaeda organisation has also been linked to several other attacks, including the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa, a 2000 suicide bomb attack on a US warship off Yemen, and the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

He has successfully avoided capture despite the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which toppled the Taliban regime that had provided him refuge and protection, and a 25-million-dollar bounty on his head. Reports have regularly surfaced that the Al-Qaeda leader is in poor health.

The latest came from the US newsmagazine Time and the television network CNN -- both owned by Time Warner -- which reported on the weekend that bin Laden had fallen ill with an unspecified waterborne illness. Both stopped short of saying he was dead, however.

Time said "a well placed source in Washington" believed the hypothesis of bin Laden's death originated with "some Saudi intelligence analysts with no hard evidence to back it up. No one at a high level is satisfied it's true".


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