The United States has asked the family of Osama bin Laden for DNA samples, to rule out the possibility that he may have been among the casualties of a U.S. missile strike earlier this month.
The request comes as the U.S. military said it would help the former Soviet republic of Georgia train its troops to battle terrorists.
The search for bin Laden's DNA comes after a Feb. 4 U.S. attack. A remote-controlled U.S. Predator spy plane fired two Hellfire missiles at a group of suspected al Qaeda leaders in eastern Afghanistan. Because one of the men was unusually tall, there was also some speculation that bin Laden himself may have been killed.
U.S. forces searching the scene a week later found "biological material," which might possibly include human remains. They are now hoping to compare the DNA from the material with a sample (saliva or blood) from bin Laden's mother because that would provide the closest match.
He is the only child of that mother — but he has close to 50 half siblings through his father. If investigators got several of his siblings to provide DNA samples, officials believe they could have a conclusive result.
Bin Laden's father is dead, but his mother is still living in Saudi Arabia and there is a possibility she will cooperate.
"It was always believed that if we needed to get DNA we could probably do so, so we didn't press the issue. But since the Hellfire missile strike we figured that it was time we got a sample, even though we do not believe it was bin Laden we hit," a senior U.S. official told ABCNEWS.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials feel confidant that bin Laden is still alive — the latest intelligence indicating he remains in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. The main reason that officials believe he is still alive: There is no message traffic indicating he is dead.
From the Hindu Kush to the Black Sea
On the other side of Central Asia, the war on terror appeared to be opening up a new front with the U.S. offer to help Georgia fight terrorists who are believed to have moved into the Caucasus region.
Senior military officials said the United States will begin to "train and equip" missions in Georgia "sooner rather than later" following the recommendations of an assessment team that returned from the region about a month ago.
White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said today that plans are being developed for how the United States can help Georgia deal with its security problems.
"Plans are being made for training and equipping of Georgian forces in their battle in the Pankisi Gorge," Fleischer said. "It's important for fighting terrorists who are operating there."
Georgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shorena Esakiya said that the goal of the U.S. training mission is "to assist in training a special task force capable of resisting terrorists."
Between 100 and 200 American soldiers will be involved, carrying out an operation described as similar to one under way in the Philippines. There, 660 troops are conducting a joint operation with that country's armed forces, including 160 U.S. special forces soldiers who are training the Filipinos to combat terrorism.
Military officials said they have seen "pretty clear evidence" that some members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network have moved into the Pankisi Gorge — a crime-ridden area near the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya.
In recent comments carried in the Georgian media, the U.S. chargé d'affaires put the number of al Qaeda terrorists there in the dozens.
Some Connection to Al Qaeda?
At the Pentagon, though, Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and the vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, refused to offer many specifics about operations in Georgia, other than to say that plans were in place to offer help to the former Soviet republic since before Sept. 11, and that those talks have continued.
"We've asked the European commander to take a look and see with their counterparts whether or not there's benefit to training and equipping," Pace said. "So if there were a plan that came forward that both governments were comfortable with, then certainly trainers would be a part of that, but we don't know that yet."
The United States delivered 10 UH-1H Iroquois "Huey" helicopters in mid-October, Pace said. The helicopters are unarmed, and were intended to help improve the mobility of Georgia's troops. There are also seven U.S. military personnel to train Georgia's troops in the operation and maintenance of the helicopters.
In addition to the helicopters, some 40 U.S. military personnel spent time in the country last fall to make an assessment of Georgia's needs, according to Lt. Col. Ed Loomis, a spokesman for U.S. European Command.
The Pentagon officials would not say whether any extraordinary threat was seen from terrorists in Georgia, or whether there was anything that differentiated the country from the 50 to 60 other countries where al Qaeda cells are believed to operate.
When asked whether it was possible that members of al Qaeda had gone to the region and whether there was any link between Chechen rebels and al Qaeda, Pace replied: "It is possible. And that is possible."
"There have been some indications of connections, some connections of al Qaeda in that country," Clarke said. "But, going beyond that — saying there have been some connections — is not appropriate."
Adding to the Obligations
The new training mission would mark the third active front in the U.S. war on terror after Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Russia had been hoping to be part of a joint operation in the region, where it has been reluctant to allow U.S. forces to operate independently.
To assuage Russian concerns, U.S. officials said, the military will make an effort at pursuing "transparency" in the operation.
U.S. officials said this would have been "unthinkable" before Sept. 11, and will ultimately prove another example of the United States' warming relationship with its former Cold War enemy.
Russian Reception Might Not Be So Warm
In Moscow, though, Russian officials viewed the American plan with some skepticism.
"Regarding possible U.S. military deployment in Georgia, we think it could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is difficult as it is," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in an interview with the ORT television network. "That is our position and Washington is well aware of it."
For years, Moscow has said that Chechen separatist rebels used the mountains of Georgia to hide and train, and has had frequent disputes with the Georgia government over the issue.
The Georgia government has troubles of its own with separatist groups in Abkhazia and southern Ossetia, and Moscow and Tblisi have traded accusations about support of terrorists.
Last fall, Georgia accused Russia of bombing the Pankisi Gorge as part of its war on Chechen separatists, but Moscow denied the accusation.
Closing In on Tribunals
In other developments:
U.S. interrogators are trying to determine which detainees from the war in Afghanistan should be tried by military commissions, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "It's getting increasingly clear as to how we would probably structure the commissions," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon. "I feel … we'd be ready to go within a relatively short period of time." Rumsfeld would not disclose details about the commissions. Interrogators from the FBI, CIA and other U.S. agencies have been questioning the approximately 500 prisoners detained during the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. About 300 are being held in a high-security camp at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the rest are still in Afghanistan.
Efforts to prevent Afghanistan from plunging back into civil war got a boost as 200 soldiers in the country's northern region disarmed at their warlord's demand. Warlord Atta Mohammed saluted his men, then ordered them to lay down their Kalashnikov rifles, grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns at their fort in northern Afghanistan. Some of his soldiers will be trained by international peacekeepers for the new Afghan army.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, denied there had been an intelligence failure when a raid by special forces on a southern Afghan village last month left 16 Afghans dead. After the attack, it was determined that the Afghans killed were not al Qaeda or Taliban, but backers of a local leader. Franks said the Afghans were killed because they had fired upon U.S. forces.
ABCNEWS' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.