Bin Laden in high spirits, more confident: interviewer

ISLAMABAD: He's in high spirits, speaking confidently and laughing readily. Osama bin Laden is a man at ease even though he feels the Americans will eventually kill him, his Pakistani interviewer said Saturday.

Journalist Hamid Mir ratcheted up the world's jitters Saturday with an exclusive interview with bin Laden in which the suspected terrorist mastermind said he had nuclear and chemical weapons and was ready to use them.

Mir, who published the interview in Pakistan's English-language newspaper Dawn, says he met with bin Laden in 1997 and 1998. When he saw the shadowy Saudi millionaire this time in Afghanistan, he found him greatly changed.

"Previously he was very softspoken," the 36-year-old Mir told AFP. "But now he speaks like an experienced orator. He is very hard-hitting. He was in high spirits. He's very healthy and he laughs a lot.

"He's very critical about the government of Pakistan. Previously he was not so critical about Pakistan. So there is a big change in that man. He's more confident," said Mir, editor of the Urdu-language newspaper Ausaf.

The world's most hunted man since the September 11 terror attacks on the United States, bin Laden feels certain the Americans will kill him sooner or later, according to Mir, who met him at a secret location outside Kabul.

"He told me, 'I am ready to die.' He said, 'I know that they can bomb this place also. They are not aware that I am present here. But they are dropping bombs blindly everywhere. So I may get killed even with you.'"

"My cause will continue after my death," he quoted bin Laden as saying. "They think they will solve this problem by killing me. It's not easy to solve this problem. This war has been spread all over the world."

Bin Laden, who is said to live constantly on the move to avoid capture and reportedly often shuttles from cave to cave, expressed no regret for his difficult circumstances.

"I cannot gain anything by adopting this way of life," Mir quoted him as saying. "I am fighting because they are killing us. We are the victims and they are the aggressors so we have no other option but to fight back."

The interview conducted Thursday was bin Laden's first since the kamikaze assaults on New York and Washington. But Mir said the terror suspect planned to invite journalists to Kabul for a press conference in the coming weeks.

The tortured logistics of organizing Mir's session with bin Laden were typical of the clandestine, ultra-security-conscious world surrounding the terror suspect.

The intense, mustachioed Mir, who contributes regularly to Dawn, was on a one-day trip to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad when he mentioned to commanders of the ruling Taliban militia his desire to see bin Laden.

He drove to Kabul on Tuesday and checked into a small hotel. The next day, an Arab man came to pick him up and he spent the entire day shuttled from one place to another in a jeep.

"In the night they took me out of Kabul to some unknown place where they changed the jeep. I was blindfolded and I was rolled in a blanket and they put me on the back seat of the jeep.

"After five hours, early in the morning of the eighth of November, I arrived at a place where he (bin Laden) appeared," said Mir, who is writing a book on the Islamic militant.

He could not say where he was, offering only that "the place was much colder than Kabul. I think that maybe it was some area where snow was."

Mir was ushered into into a small, unfurnished room with blankets covering the walls. Outside, the sounds of anti-aircraft guns echoed through the morning.

He said bin Laden, wearing a camouflage jacket over his white robe, arrived with his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and sat down on a traditional Afghan gadda, or cushion, for the two-hour interview.

More than a dozen bodyguards armed with Kalishnikov rifles stood by. None were masked, all were Arab.

Mir said he asked his questions in English and bin Laden's Arabic responses were translated back into English by al-Zawahiri.

When the article appeared Saturday in the Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily with a circulation of 196,000, it made Mir an instant celebrity. Media lined up at his home on a quiet street here for interviews.

Analysts poring over an Urdu version of the text published in Ausaf created a minor stir by noting that it did not include an explicit statement by bin Laden that he had nuclear and chemical weapons.

But Mir explained he was saving the full quote for a complete transcript to run in the color magazine of Ausaf in the coming days. He stood by the English version.

It's not the first time the 14-year reporting veteran has put out controversial copy. Mir said he was fired from two previous publications for his writings about corruption in high places.

Mir thinks the interview might also cause trouble, appearing as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was in the United States for talks on Islamabad's role in the US-led coalition trying to hunt down bin Laden.

He said the government and his bosses were not happy.

"They say our president is in America and this interview will be published and it will create problems for him," Mir said. "I said this is your perception. This is not my problem." ( AFP )