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Bin Laden capture close, U.S. says

The U.S. military is "sure" it will catch Osama bin Laden this year, perhaps within months, a spokesman declared Thursday, but Pakistan said it would not allow American troops to cross the border in search of the al-Qaida leader.

The prediction by a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, about capturing bin Laden comes as the Army readied a spring offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts. A U.S. official hinted Wednesday that the offensive might extend into Pakistan.

Bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that sparked the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is believed to be holed up somewhere along the mountainous border.

Pakistani Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior security official who coordinating counterterrorism efforts with U.S. officials, said Pakistani policies do not allow American troops to operate in the country.

The U.S. commander in the region, Gen. John Abizaid, said Thursday American forces will continue conducting "limited military operations" along the Afghan border, but he has no plans to put U.S. troops inside Pakistan against Pakistani wishes.

Since last month's capture of Saddam Hussein, American commanders in Afghanistan have expressed new optimism about finding bin Laden. Hilferty said the military now believes it could seize him within months.

"We have a variety of intelligence and we're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar this year," Hilferty said. "We've learned lessons from Iraq and we're getting improved intelligence from the Afghan people."

Hilferty declined to comment on where he believed bin Laden or Mullah Omar, the former Taliban leader, might be hiding.

Earlier this week, the American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he expects bin Laden to be brought to justice by year's end.

American forces are pinning hopes for better intelligence from Afghans on new security teams setting up in provincial capitals across a swath of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The security teams are supposed to open the way for millions of dollars in U.S. development aid and allow the Afghan government to regain control over lawless areas largely populated by ethnic Pashtuns, from which the Taliban drew their main support.

This month alone, about 70 people have died violently, including two international peacekeepers killed by suicide bombers in Kabul. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bomb attacks.

The spring offensive touted by U.S. defense officials Wednesday would come just when the new security teams are supposed to be up and running, and warmer weather opens mountain passes.

Hilferty said he could not talk about future operations.

Pakistani officials said Thursday they would not allow American forces to use their territory for any new offensive. Cheema said he had not heard of the plan for a spring offensive.

"As a matter of fact they (the United States) have not contacted us for this purpose," Cheema said.