France and the United States said on Saturday they could not confirm a report that Osama bin Laden had died and France launched a probe into how a secret document containing the claim was leaked.
Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden talks at a news conference in Afghanistan in this May 26, 1998 France and the U.S. said on Saturday they could not confirm a report that Osama had died and France launched a probe into how a secret document containing the claim was leaked.[File Photo/Reuters]
The French regional daily L'Est Republicain, published in Nancy, quoted a document from France's DGSE foreign intelligence service as saying the Saudi secret services were convinced the al Qaeda leader had died of typhoid in Pakistan in late August.
President Jacques Chirac told reporters bin Laden's death "has not been confirmed in any way whatsoever, and so I have no comment to make".
"I was a bit surprised to see that a confidential note from the DGSE had been published," he said after a summit with leaders of Germany and Russia.
The Saudi Interior Ministry was not available for comment and officials in the United States, which has made capturing bin Laden a priority in its war on terrorism, were also unable to confirm the account.
"We don't have any confirmation of that report," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
"We've heard these things before and have no reason to think this is any different," added a U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be named.
"There's just nothing we can point to to say this report has any more credence than other reports we've seen in the past."
In Paris, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie ordered an investigation into the leaking of the classified DGSE document.
The French newspaper printed what it said was a copy of the report, dated September 21, and said it had been passed to Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin the same day.
"According to a usually reliable source, the Saudi services are now convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead," it read.
"The information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al Qaeda fell victim, while he was in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, to a very serious case of typhoid that led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs."
The report, which was stamped "defence confidential" and with the initials of the French secret service, said Saudi Arabia had first heard the information on September 4 and was waiting for more details before making an official announcement.
"If anyone was in the picture, I doubt it would be Saudi intelligence," said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.
"Even if Saudi Arabia had information, they'd pass it on to the United States, not France. It doesn't ring true."
A senior Pakistani government official said Islamabad had not received any information from any foreign government that would corroborate the story.
The Saudi-born bin Laden was based in Afghanistan until the Taliban government there was overthrown by U.S.-backed forces after al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Since then, U.S. and Pakistani officials have regularly said they believe he is hiding somewhere on the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bin Laden is rumoured to have been suffering from kidney ailments and receiving dialysis treatment.
His last videotaped message was released in late 2004, but several low-quality audio tapes have been released this year.
Senior U.S. intelligence figures have cautioned against assuming that bin Laden's death or capture would automatically have a substantial impact in the war on terrorism.
They note that the death in June of al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has failed to lead to any let-up in the violence there.