Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar has added to the mystery over Osama bin Laden, saying he hasn't seen his ally and fellow fugitive since US-backed forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in late 2001.
"No, I have neither seen him, nor have I made any effort to do so, but I pray for his health and safety," Omar said in an e-mailed response to questions sent by Reuters.
The questions were relayed to Omar through his spokesman Mohammad Hanif, and a reply was received late on Wednesday.
A half-dozen audio tapes of bin Laden were circulated during the first half of 2006, but the al-Qaeda leader last appeared on video tape in late 2004, while tapes of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been issued regularly.
A video tape of bin Laden was released late last year, but it was identified as old footage, and the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States passed without any word from the al-Qaeda leader.
Speculation over the whereabouts and health of bin Laden boiled over in September when a French provincial newspaper reported that he had died of typhoid in late August.
Though several governments and intelligence agencies rebutted that report, saying they had no evidence to suggest bin Laden had died, nor did they have any clue to where he was.
The wealthy Saudi-born bin Laden helped bankroll the Taliban after moving to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and he reportedly married one of Omar's daughters to cement their alliance.
The United States has offered a USD 25 million reward for the capture of bin Laden and USD 10 million for Omar.
The best guess to bin Laden's whereabouts remains somewhere on the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the ethnic tribal lands where Omar's Taliban counts on support to fight an insurgency against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, both major US allies in the war on terrorism, have deteriorated sharply over the past year in the wake of the bloodiest campaign mounted by the Taliban since it was ousted from power.
Omar said people from the Pashtun tribal belt straddling the border were rallying to the Taliban's cause. "The people themselves have risen up to fight the Americans," he said.
"I would like to say that without any doubt the people of the region are behind us, but not based on tribal loyalty, but because of their national and Islamic spirit."
Although the Taliban and al-Qaeda are seen as allies, Omar said his sole focus was Afghanistan while bin Laden's movement was engaged in a global jihad, or holy war.
"They have set jihad as their goal, whereas we have set the expulsion of American troops from Afghanistan as our target," he said.
To start a political process to end the militancy, Pakistan and Afghanistan plan to organize tribal councils – known as jirgas – on both sides of the border. No dates have been fixed.
A Taliban spokesman last month said the group might join the jirgas if asked, but Omar rejected the proposal.
"The only people who would participate are those who have sold out to foreign powers. Our participation is absolutely out of the question," the fugitive militant leader said.
He reiterated his call for the withdrawal of foreign troops to end conflict in Afghanistan. "Unless that happens, the war will heat further up," Omar said.
Afghanistan says Omar is based in or around the southwest Pakistani city of Quetta, but Omar said he is in Afghanistan.
"The leadership, resistance and shura (council) are all based in Afghanistan," he said.