Describing Pakistan's lawless tribal belt near Afghanistan as the "global headquarters" of Al-Qaeda, top American military commander Mike Mullen has said the US believed that the terror network's chief Osama bin Laden and his deputy Aiman al-Zawahiri are in this country.
The presence of these terrorist leaders in the region is a reason why "a principal part of the overall Af-Pak strategy is focussed on elimination of safe havens" for them, Mullen told reporters in Islamabad last night.
His comments came days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled feathers in Islamabad by making a similar statement.
During her recent visit here, Clinton had also said that bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders are in Pakistan, an assertion dismissed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as "speculation".
Responding to questions, Mullen, who is on his 19th visit to Pakistan, said al-Qaeda leaders are hiding in a "very secure place" and it is difficult to trace them. He said Pakistan's tribal belt is the "global headquarters" for the al-Qaeda terror network.
Mullen praised Pakistan for moving against militants but said that there is still a need to take action against the Haqqani network of Taliban, which has been disturbing peace inside Afghanistan by its activities from Pakistan.
He described the Haqqani group as "the most lethal network" faced by US-led forces in Afghanistan and said he had repeatedly urged Pakistan to tackle this threat. Pakistani forces are aware of the threat posed by the Haqqani group, he said.
"The Haqqani network is strongly engaged and involved in insurgencies in Afghanistan and there is a need to take a much stronger position against it," said Mullen.
The US and Pakistan are strong allies in the war against terror and America will continue providing help and cooperation to Pakistan in this war, he said. "The Pakistan government has made critical decisions to achieve success in the war against terrorism."
Mullen acknowledged that there had been an improvement in the trust between Pakistan and US intelligence agencies but indicated that more could be done in this field.
He appreciated the role played by the Pakistan Army and ISI in capturing terrorists.
Mullen also denied that the US had played any role in influencing Pakistan government to give a 3-year extension to army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, saying: "Pakistan is a sovereign country and it is an internal issue of Pakistan."
He also said there are "no secret American troops" in Pakistan. All US troops in the country were there at Pakistan's request for training purposes.