The U.S. military is "sure" it will catch Osama bin Laden this year, a spokesman said Thursday, but he declined to comment on where the al-Qaida leader may be hiding.
Bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that sparked the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is widely believed to be holed up somewhere along the mountainous Pakistani-Afghan border with former Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Following last month's capture of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, American commanders in Afghanistan have expressed new optimism they will eventually find bin Laden. Spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said the military now believed it could seize him within months.
"We have a variety of intelligence and we're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year," Hilferty said. "We've learned lessons from Iraq and we're getting improved intelligence from the Afghan people."
Hilferty declined to comment on where exactly bin Laden or Mullah Omar might be hiding, but his optimism coincides with comments from U.S. officials in Washington that the military is planning a spring offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts.
American forces are pinning hopes for better intelligence from locals on new security teams setting up in provincial capitals across a swath of troubled southern and eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
The security teams are supposed to open the way for millions of dollars in U.S. development aid and allow the Afghan government to regain control over lawless areas largely populated by ethnic Pashtuns, from which the Taliban drew their main support.
This month alone, about 70 people have died in violence, including two international peacekeepers killed by suicide bombers in the relatively peaceful capital, Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for those attacks.
The spring offensive touted by U.S. defense officials Wednesday would come just when the new security teams are supposed to be up and running, and warmer weather opens the high passes through which insurgents slip.
Hilferty declined to comment on the proposed plans, saying he could not talk about future operations.
Pakistani officials said Thursday they would not allow American forces to use their territory for any new offensive.
"As a matter of fact they (the United States) have not contacted us for this purpose," said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Pakistani security official who coordinates with U.S. counterparts on counterterrorism.
An intelligence official said Pakistani authorities also had no specific information about bin Laden's whereabouts.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally, would face withering criticism from political opponents, particularly Islamic hard-liners controlling two key border provinces, if American forces were deployed inside Pakistan.
Pakistan says it has arrested more than 500 al-Qaida men over the past two years and many of them have been handed over to the United States.
In January, Pakistani forces raided a border village where al-Qaida fighters were believed to be hiding. The interior minister said 18 suspected terrorists were captured, but he did not identify them.
The area is close to the Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost, regions where the U.S. military says bin Laden loyalists are active.
The 11,000-strong U.S.-led force hunting insurgents includes about 500 soldiers stationed at Khost airport and more troops at two smaller bases in Paktika. All three regularly come under fire.
The stage is set. Just as in the weeks preceding the capture of Saddam Hussein, there are too many people bragging for this not to hold some weight. And of course we predicted it nearly two years ago.
FLASHBACK: Jones: Intelligence Sources Confirm bin Laden is Dead
IMPENDING STAGED CAPTURE OF BIN LADEN: Captain Joyce Reilly has proved that she has amazing contacts inside the military. Two weeks before the capture of Saddam, her sources told her that they were about to roll out their ace in the hole, now Joyce is getting intel that they will soon trot out bin Laden. It could be a look alike, another wax figuring like Saddam's sons...
FLASHBACK: Albright thinks Bush hiding bin Laden
Public officials were bragging that Saddam was about to be captured in the weeks before he was captured.
FLASHBACK: LaHood: Hussein's capture imminent