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France: Bin Laden nearly caught in Afghanistan
Updated: 2004-03-16 11:32

Osama bin Laden has escaped capture in Afghanistan several times and may be linked in some way to the Madrid train attacks that killed 200 people, France's chief of defense staff said Monday.

Gen. Henri Bentegeat said about 200 French troops were operating with U.S. forces in southeastern Afghanistan against the Taliban and bin Laden's al Qaeda. The Saudi-born militant is thought to be there or just across the border in Pakistan.

"Our men were not very far. On several occasions, I even think he slipped out of a net that was quite well closed," he told Europe 1 radio. He did not specify a time frame.

Bentegeat, who spoke as if he were sure bin Laden was in Afghanistan, said the country's difficult terrain explained why it was so hard to catch the world's most wanted man.

"In Afghanistan, the terrain is extremely favorable to escapes, there are underground networks everywhere," he said.

The general said it was essential that bin Laden be caught.

"He symbolizes September 11 and is certainly not completely innocent in what happened in Madrid," he said, making a link between the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington and the Spanish train bombings last Thursday.

But he added that arresting bin Laden "would not change things directly. (Al Qaeda) is a hydra with many heads. If we catch one head, there will be others."

Bentegeat said the minute preparations needed for the Madrid bombings were "the clearest indication" that al Qaeda was probably behind them.

He said the threat of Islamic radicalism was spreading beyond the Middle East. "It's a phenomenon we're seeing step by step in Africa," he said, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Then there are countries that are adrift, that we are trying to help to not sink, such as Ivory Coast or the Central African Republic," he added.

Asked about security in France, Bentegeat said French fighter jets could scramble in less than two minutes to confront any intrusion into the country's air space.

"Not a day goes by with at least one patrol that takes off to go check an airplane that has strayed off its path or doesn't respond by radio," he said.

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