Did Osama bin Laden's secret lair crumble in the earthquake that devastated northwest Pakistan?

So far, U.S. government officials and terrorism experts caution against too much speculation about whether the al-Qaida chief may have been killed, injured or forced from hiding, providing a much-needed break for his pursuers.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita barely provided a glimpse into the U.S. thinking on bin Laden's fate. "There's a lot of people who know that that's an obvious question," Di Rita said Tuesday.

Federal officials who track terrorism for a living said there's no evidence yet to suggest that bin Laden or his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was injured or killed in the quake. Yet the quake has caused many in and out of government to ask, "What if?" Bin Laden has managed to avoid capture for nearly a decade, including a feverish manhunt since he ordered the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The United States is offering up to $25 million (Ђ20.8 million) for information leading to his killing or capture.

Rumors that bin Laden is suffering from kidney failure and requires regular medical care have persisted, but never been confirmed. His deteriorating appearance in video tapes released shortly after U.S. bombing began in Afghanistan in October 2001 fueled that speculation.

If bin Laden died, the world may never know. Bearden said his fate might be anyone's guess: "A dead guy squashed, he just disappears or someone drags out a body and says ... 'That's bin Laden."

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