Eds: SUBS lead to delete extraneous word "saying;" UPDATES with statement from Pakistani ambassador to U.S.; ADDS background; TRIMS.
By SADAQAT JAN
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Pakistan's top army spokesman on Wednesday vehemently denied saying in a news report that Osama bin Laden would not be taken into custody if he agreed to live peacefully in Pakistan.
"This is absolutely fabricated, absurd. I never said this," Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press, referring to an ABC News broadcast aired hours earlier.
The ABC report cited Sultan as saying in a telephone interview that al-Qaida chief bin Laden "would not be taken into custody" if found, "as long as one is being like a peaceful citizen." Sultan's recorded comments were included in the report, but it was not immediately clear whether he understood that bin Laden was the specific subject of discussion at that point in the interview. Sultan told the AP by phone that "what they are saying on Osama is absolutely fabricated."
"Pakistan is committed to its policy on the war on terror, and Osama, caught anywhere in Pakistan, would be brought to justice," he said.
Asked for a response, Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, told the AP by phone, "We simply played his comments as we recorded them."
The ABC report also featured former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke saying a peace accord, signed Tuesday by Pakistan's government and pro-Taliban militants in the country, meant that "the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership have effectively carved out a sanctuary inside Pakistan."
"I reject this comment," Sultan said Wednesday. Clarke is a news consultant with ABC.
In Washington, Pakistan's Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani issued a statement late Tuesday night saying Sultan "has been grossly misquoted in a section of U.S. media today."
"Pakistan is on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his associates. If he is in Pakistan, today or any time later, he will be taken into custody and brought to justice."
Pakistan, a one-time supporter of neighboring Afghanistan's authoritarian Taliban regime, switched to join the U.S.-led campaign against terror after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
On Tuesday, Pakistan's government and pro-Taliban militants signed a peace agreement aimed at ending years of violence in the country's North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Under the deal, the militants are to halt attacks on Pakistani forces in the region and stop crossing into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and Afghan forces hunting al-Qaida and Taliban. Pakistani troops are to stop their hugely unpopular military campaign in the area, where more than of its 350 soldiers have died, along with hundreds of militants and scores of civilians. Some observers have said the pact highlights the Pakistani military's inability to crush a violent pro-Taliban insurgency on its own soil.
"The military was not in a position to defeat the tribes," said Pakistani political analyst Rusul Basksh Rais.
Pakistani Ambassador Durrani's statement said his country's army "will continue to stay in Waziristan for as long as the security situation demands."