Saudi Arabia says no evidence bin Laden dead

WASHINGTON - Saudi Arabia has said it has no evidence Osama bin Laden is dead, shedding further doubt on a secret document leaked in France that said Saudi secret services believed he died last month.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said that as far as he knew the Saudi-born al Qaeda leader was still alive.

"To my knowledge Osama bin Laden is not dead," he said on LCI Television. But he added he had not seen a French secret service report, printed by a newspaper, which said Saudi Arabia was convinced bin Laden died of typhoid in Pakistan last month.

France, the United States and Britain all said earlier they were unable to confirm the report in French regional daily L'Est Republicain, which quoted the DGSE foreign intelligence service.

Time magazine separately posted an article on its website quoting an unidentified Saudi source as saying bin Laden was stricken with a water-borne disease and may already be dead.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying: "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no evidence to support recent media reports that Osama bin Laden is dead. Information that has been reported otherwise is purely speculative and cannot be independently verified."

French 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" and that he was surprised a confidential note had been published. France has launched an investigation into the leak.

"No comment, no knowledge," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when asked about the French article by reporters in New York.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, asked in a BBC interview if he could shed light on the report, said: "No, I can't. I haven't heard anything that indicates that might be the case."

A US intelligence source said Washington, which wants to capture bin Laden, had no evidence the report was any more credible than earlier rumours of his death.

"We've heard these things before and have no reason to think this is any different," said the US intelligence official, who asked not to be named.

L'Est Republicain, published in Nancy, printed what it said was a copy of the DGSE report, dated September 21, and said it was 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."

Bin Laden was based in Afghanistan until its Taleban government was overthrown by US-backed forces in 2001 after al Qaeda's September 11 attacks on the United States.

Since then, US and Pakistani officials have said they believe he is hiding somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Bin Laden is rumoured to have been suffering from kidney ailments and receiving dialysis treatment. His last video-taped message was released in late 2004 but several low-quality audio tapes have been released this year.

Time magazine said its source claimed Saudi officials have received a number of reports in recent weeks that bin Laden had been struck by a water-borne illness and was likely to be dead but it had no solid proof.

There was scepticism about whether Riyadh was well-placed to be the first to pick up on such a development.

"If anyone was in the picture, I doubt it would be Saudi intelligence," a Western diplomat in Riyadh said. "Even if Saudi Arabia had information, they'd pass it on to the United States, not France. It doesn't ring true."

- REUTERS

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