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Bin Laden's whereabouts unknown, Taliban envoy says

U.S. official: 'The Taliban rarely says anything that turns out to be true'

Atef with bin Laden
Bin Laden, left, and Atef at a 1998 news conference. Atef was reported killed in a U.S. airstrike earlier this week.  

QUETTA, Pakistan (CNN) -- The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said Saturday that he did not know the whereabouts of suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

The Associated Press quoted Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the Taliban envoy in Pakistan, as saying bin Laden had left Afghanistan with his four wives and children. Zaeef later told CNN only that he doesn't know where bin Laden is and denied saying bin Laden had left the country.

In Washington, the White House greeted the claim that bin Laden had left Afghanistan with "administration-wide skepticism," a senior administration official told CNN.

"We have engaged in a special effort to test the credibility of the Taliban," the official said. "The Taliban rarely says anything that turns out to be true."

And at the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman Glenn Flood said, "Our search continues. Just consider the source."

Flood suggested the Taliban might be trying to misdirect the effort to find bin Laden, who U.S. officials hold responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

CNN's David Ensor reports on the possible location of Osama bin Laden (November 17)

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CNN's Mike Boettcher details Osama bin Laden's key advisers in al Qaeda.

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The report comes after a week of Taliban reversals that have left them in control of just a third of Afghanistan, according to U.S. estimates. And it followed news Friday that bin Laden's chief military strategist, Mohammed Atef, had been killed in a U.S. air raid.

U.S. officials said they had "credible reports" that Atef -- one of the top three leaders of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization -- died in an airstrike south of Kabul. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he could not confirm Atef's death, but added "the reports I've received seem authoritative."

Atef is considered al Qaeda's military chief and bin Laden's likely successor, and his daughter is married to one of bin Laden's sons.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that reports of Atef's death were based on conversations intercepted after the airstrike. Stufflebeem said the raid occurred "a couple of days ago."

Atef has been indicted for his alleged involvement with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. And federal prosecutors said he provided military training and assistance in 1993 to Somali tribes who violently opposed the U.N. intervention in Somalia. That opposition led to an October 1993 firefight that left 18 U.S. Army Rangers dead. More than 6 feet tall, Atef is nicknamed "Al Khabir," which means "the big guy." Sometime in the 1980s, Atef apparently traveled from Egypt to Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden, who was in the country fighting against the Soviet occupation.

Jamal al-Fadl, the government's main informant on al Qaeda, testified recently at the trial of four men charged in the Africa embassy bombings that Atef was one of the founding members of al Qaeda. Atef became military commander of al Qaeda after the previous commander drowned in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria in Africa.

"There are few bin Laden can trust, in terms of family, just to reinforce loyalty, it creates intricate web that can insulate any defections," said Magnus Ranstorp, the deputy director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

-- CNN National Correspondent Mike Boettcher and CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.


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