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Bin Laden still priority: Rumsfeld

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Osama Bin Laden

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SHANNON, Ireland (CNN) -- Capturing Osama bin Laden was still a priority of the U.S. government, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters aboard his flight to Pakistan via Shannon, Ireland, would not speculate on whether the al Qaeda leader was still alive.

"I think it is interesting that we haven't heard from him in a year, close to a year," he said. "I don't know what it means. I suspect that in any event if he's alive and functioning that he's probably spending a major fraction of his time trying to avoid being caught.

"I have trouble believing that he's able to operate sufficiently to be in a position of major command over a worldwide al Qaeda operation, but I could be wrong. We just don't know."

Earlier, Rumsfeld said he had authorized a reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding, from 19,000 to 16,000, largely because of an increase in NATO troops there.

The secretary did not appear concerned about an increase in activity by Taliban fighters along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

"The levels of violence and incidents fluctuate over the past several years," he said.

"They tend to go up over key political periods. They tend to go up prior to the beginning of winter. And they tend to go up after the winter period ends. They also tend to go up as a result coalition activity against them."

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