A top US diplomat on Thursday said Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was based in Pakistan's tribal belt and senior Taliban leaders operating from Quetta were playing a key role in fomenting unrest in Afghanistan, prompting Islamabad to dismiss the charges as "mere speculation".
Gerald M Feierstein, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy, told a group of Pakistani journalists that bin Laden was alive and based in the lawless tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Feierstein said the Al Qaeda chief's ability to carry out terrorist activities had been "significantly limited" and he did not appear to have day-to-day command over operations by militants. However, the Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives continue to draw inspiration from bin Laden, he said.
The US has information that the "command centre" of the Quetta Shura of the Taliban, comprising commanders from the erstwhile militant regime that ruled Afghanistan, is based in the suburbs of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, Feierstein said.
Mullah Omar is among the Taliban leaders based in Quetta, he said, adding Taliban Shura is "quite active" and plans and launches attacks on US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
Feierstein's comments came hours after Interior Minister Rehman Malik said Mullah Omar and other Afghan Taliban leaders are not based in Quetta.
Malik said top US leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Central Intelligence Agency chief, had expressed apprehensions that Taliban commanders like Mullah Omar might be in Quetta.
"We have categorically told them that they are not in Quetta. If they have any real-time information, they should give it to us and we will take action," he told the media.
Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit told TV news channels that Feierstein's remarks were "mere speculation". He said such allegations will not "bear fruit" as no Al Qaeda leader is present in any part of Pakistan.
Feierstein also said the Pakistan government should act "aggressively" to neutralise the leadership of Taliban's Quetta Shura. The militant commanders should be detained and prevented from using Pakistani soil for their activities as this will help improve the situation in Afghanistan, he said.
He avoided questions from the journalists about possible drone strikes in Quetta to target the Taliban leadership and said the US has conveyed its concerns to the Pakistan government.
Though the "locus" of the volatile situation is in Afghanistan, Balochistan and Pakistan's tribal belt are "part of the problem" as the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership is based there, Feierstein said.Feierstein expressed satisfaction at the level of cooperation between Pakistani and US intelligence and security agencies.