Osama Live and Well Says Taliban Honcho

Osama bin Laden, the fugitive al Qaeda leader that the U.S. claims is sick but it still unable to find, is in good health, a Taliban commander says.

The commander, Mullah Akhtar Usmani, also said Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was well and in direct command of Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

“All praise to Allah, he is all right,” Usmani told Pakistan’s GEO, a private television station, when asked about bin Laden in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Asked about reports bin Laden was sick, he said: “No, no, he is all right. There is no problem.”

The private television station did not say where or when the interview was conducted. Usmani, who is on a 10-member Taliban leadership council and has been identified by the government as a top rebel commander, has in the past met reporters.

In the interview, his face was partly concealed by a black turban. An assault rifle was propped up at his side.

There has been speculation about the health of bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, who has been reported to be suffering from a kidney ailment.

Usmani declined to comment when asked about bin Laden’s whereabouts. He said Taliban leader Omar was also well.

“He is still our commander and we are still getting instructions from him,” he said of Omar. “Rumours of his illness have been spread by our enemies.”

Asked if he could be sure the instructions were from Omar, Usmani said: “I can listen to his voice … I am sure he is alive.” He did not elaborate.

The Taliban were getting increasing support from the Afghan people because of U.S. “brutality against Muslims and their bias against Muslim countries,” he said.

“The Taliban are everywhere. In some places they are very dominant and in others they are not. They are dominant in the eastern, southern and southwestern provinces,” he said.

U.S. and Afghan army commanders say the Taliban are being defeated but insurgent attacks have been on the increase in recent months and 13 U.S. soldiers have been killed since late March.

Dozens of government security men have also died in the fighting, as well as more than 150 insurgents, according to U.S. and Afghan government figures.

A Taliban spokesman said Usmani’s comments on bin Laden were his personal views.

“We don’t know anything about Osama,” the spokesman, Abdul Latif Hakimi, said by telephone.