French military denies report that it passed up chances to kill bin Laden in Afghanistan

The French Defense Ministry strenuously denied a report Thursday that its special forces in Afghanistan twice had al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in their sights but did not get the go-ahead to kill him.

Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau said there was "no foundation of truth" to the claim, which was reported on France-Info radio.

France Info's reporter in the region said French special forces troops told him that they twice, in 2003 and 2004, had bin Laden "within range" but never got orders to proceed from U.S. commanders overseeing the Enduring Freedom anti-terrorism operation of which French forces were part. The reporter said he twice visited the French forces' base in southern Afghanistan.

Defense Ministry officials said, however, that while French forces were under U.S. command, they operated autonomously and did not need permission to fight al-Qaida or Taliban forces.

Col. Tom Collins, chief spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the United States last knew of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts five years ago in the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan.

"I have never, ever heard of anything like that," Collins said of the France-Info report.

"The last time the United States had confidence of where bin Laden was in 2001 in Tora Bora."

France announced last weekend that it will withdraw its 200 special forces troops from Afghanistan next month, but keep 1,100 soldiers based in the capital, Kabul, reports AP.

The former head of the French armed forces, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, said in March 2004 that "on several occasions" bin Laden narrowly escaped capture by French troops. He did not say when or where the escapes took place, and the Defense Ministry declined to give details.

"On several occasions, I even think that he slipped out of a net that was well closed," Bentegeat said at the time. He did not blame the slip-away on U.S. forces failing to give the go-ahead.

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