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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s ruling Taliban have been unable to locate alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) for the past two days, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said Sunday.
U.S. officials cast doubt on the claim, saying the Taliban may be trying to elude President Bush (news - web sites)'s demands that they hand over bin Laden or face retribution along with the Saudi exile for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (news - web sites). Bin Laden is the top suspect in those attacks.
``We're not going to be deterred by comments that he may be missing. We don't simply believe it,'' National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (news - web sites) told ``Fox News Sunday.''
Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had sent emissaries to inform bin Laden of a decision Thursday by the country's Muslim clergy that he should leave the country voluntarily at a time of his choosing.
Zaeef said Taliban authorities had been searching for bin Laden for the past two days ``but he has not been traced.''
The Taliban leadership have said in the past that they are able to convey information to bin Laden through radio communication with Taliban security personnel who travel with him.
Bush has said the Taliban - the hard-line Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan - must hand over bin Laden and members of his alleged terror network, allow U.S. access to bin Laden's camps and free two detained American aid workers. If they don't, Bush said, the Taliban will face military action along with bin Laden.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the Taliban claim that bin Laden was missing ``is simply not credible.''
``The Taliban may be trying to find a way to get themselves out of this terrible box they're in,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) told NBC's ``Meet the Press.''
When asked if the Bush administration thought the Taliban were telling the truth about bin Laden's disappearance, Rice said, ``Well, we're going to find out.'' But she insisted the U.S. response would not be deterred.
She said the Taliban movement can meet Bush's demands ``or it can face the wrath of an international coalition that understands that the Taliban has been harboring terrorists for quite a long time. And that's a choice that they're going to have to make.''
The Afghan Islamic Press, a private news agency based in Islamabad, also reported the Taliban claim. The agency quoted Omar's spokesman Abdul Hayee as saying ``guest Osama'' had ``gone missing'' and that ``efforts were being made to locate him.''
Quoting Hayee, the agency said that once bin Laden was found, he would be told of the clerical decision.
``Then it would be his decision whether he wants to stay in Afghanistan or not,'' the agency said.
Bin Laden has been living since 1996 in Afghanistan as a ``guest'' of the Taliban. Bin Laden is believed to have set up camps and hide-outs in various locations in the mountainous nation.