Rebel: 'We aided bin Laden escape'

(Ecko-I thought it was the U.S. Command that aided, or may it was both.)
POSTED: 7:18 p.m. EST, January 11, 2007 ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar claimed in a television interview broadcast Thursday that his fighters helped Osama bin Laden escape intense U.S. bombardment in the Tora Bora mountains five years ago.

Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and leader of the Hezb-e-Islami militant group, told Pakistan's private Geo TV network that when the United States began its assault on the rugged Afghan mountains in late 2001, some of his fighters moved bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other associates to "a safe place" where he met them later.

He did not say where they found shelter. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are suspected to be still hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border after the heavy U.S. pounding failed to kill them or lead to their capture.

Hekmatyar was a leader of the mujahedeen that fought the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and was briefly Afghan prime minister during the civil war of the early 1990s that cost tens of thousands of lives.

In the interview, Hekmatyar insisted he has not maintained links with al Qaeda.

"We have no organizational link with al Qaeda," he said. "We have no military operations outside of Afghanistan."

Hekmatyar was speaking in Pashto language. Only fragments from Hekmatyar's comments were audible under a voiceover translated into Urdu, Pakistan's main language. Geo did not disclose when or where the interview was made.

Hekmatyar wore a black turban, a brown coat and a white shirt. He was seen sitting in front of a backdrop with a painting of a mountain.

He also said that he had proposed to the Taliban that the two militant groups should unite in a joint fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, but he added that the Taliban leaders did not support the idea.

"A series of negotiations (with the Taliban) have broken down," Hekmatyar said. "If they realize the need (for negotiations), we are ready."

Hekmatyar's militia is active in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. His whereabouts are unknown.

In the TV interview, Hekmatyar said that foreign troops must first leave the country before the conflict can be solved politically.