Cairo, Egypt Osama bin Laden is alive and on the move in the Afghan-Pakistani border region under the protection of the Pakistani intelligence service, Afghanistan's interior minister was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Younous Qanooni also said that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban militia that once sheltered bin Laden and ruled Afghanistan, is living in Helmand province under protection of his tribe.
Qanooni told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat daily in an interview that al-Qaida fighters who had crossed to Pakistan were trying to regroup.
"Our information is that Osama bin Laden is moving across the border with Pakistan and Mullah Omar is in Helmand," he said.
"But even if that is true that does not mean that is easy to reach them, because each one of them is only a drop in a sea," said Qanooni.
Efforts by U.S. forces to hunt bin Laden and Omar have so far produced no results.
Asked if his government is trying to track them down, the minister said: "Frankly speaking, no. Our priority is security of the country."
Qanooni said there were two wings in Pakistan, one led by President Pervez Musharraf, who is trying to change the country's traditional support for Afghanistan's ousted Taliban movement.
"The second wing is represented by elements which are still influential in Pakistani intelligence, still adhering to the old strategy," Qanooni said.
"Most likely these are protecting bin Laden and Mullah Omar, concealing their movements and sheltering leaders of Taliban and al-Qaida," he said
Qanooni said of 12,000 estimated al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, between 2,000 to 3,000 had been killed during U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was surrounded by up to 18 aides who represented the leadership of al-Qaida, he said.
Qanooni said up to 50,000 Taliban activists are still in Afghanistan and protected by tribes. "Most of them have shaved their beards and changed the shape of their turbans," he said.
The minister denied reports that Iranian revolutionary guards have been posted inside Afghanistan.
"Iran is a neighbor we value and respect," he said.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of giving refuge to fleeing fighters from bin Laden's al-Qaida network and plotting to destabilize the new government in Afghanistan.