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Osama's tapes find way to al Jazeera

DOHA, Qatar—When Osama bin Laden wants to talk to the world, the television network al Jazeera is his messenger. But how bin Laden's tapes arrive at the Qatar station or one of its bureaus is as secretive as the al-Qaida leader himself.

"There are various ways," al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ali Ballout said. "We've had them hand dropped. In Afghanistan, they've been sent by post. Sometimes someone comes into an office, throws it in the lap of a bureau chief and disappears."

Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, and although the government funds it, it is one of the most popular broadcast networks in Middle East and is considered more independent than other Arab news organizations. Western officials have accused al Jazeera of biased reporting and of airing sensationalized broadcasts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that inflame Muslims around the world.

In a broadcast Sunday, a voice believed to be bin Laden's called for suicide strikes against U.S. troops massing for a possible invasion of Iraq. Sunday's messages were pulled from an Islamic web site. But the network received a tape directly last week, and won't hint how it arrived.

"We got it in one of the previous ways," Ballout said.

Sunday's broadcast, supposedly recorded by bin Laden on Feb. 11, called the defeat of the Taliban and al Qaida defeat in Afghanistan by U.S. and allied forces a "tactical retreat."

"America did not achieve its objectives in Afghanistan," the broadcast stated. "The Americans got stuck in the Afghan quagmire . . . and America's defeat in Afghanistan heralds the beginning of its end."

Western diplomats downplayed the importance of the message and whether it had any impact.

"It depends on the country," one said. "They strike a cord when he says things like the Arab regimes are corrupt. Most people in the streets wouldn't argue with him about that. But so many tapes have been popping up some people are starting to have doubts about them. They could be plants."

U.S. officials have criticized al Jazeera for broadcasting the tapes, saying they might contain instructions to terrorist sleeper cells. But western diplomats said they understand why the Arabic network is doing it.

"Ask yourself what ABC or FOX news would do if they got an exclusive with bin Laden," said one.

During the Afghan war, U.S. network executives, under pressure from the Bush administration, agreed not to air complete, unedited tapes of bin Laden statements because they might contain coded instructions to his followers.

Al Jazeera officials insist the tapes are authentic and newsworthy.

"Our sources are as good as U.S. intelligence," Ballout said. "Of course they are authentic, otherwise we wouldn't air them. We have people who know his voice, know the (inflections) of his voice."

Ballout added that bin Laden represents a point of view held by many in the Arab world, and he has a large constituency willing to fight for his cause. This makes his statements newsworthy, he said.

"If George Bush has a press conference, we air it in its entirety," he said. "We are duty bound as journalists to create a level playing ground" and also air messages from bin Laden.


(Jeff Wilkinson reports for The State of Columbia, SC)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.