PARIS — France's senior military officer said Monday that Osama bin Laden had on several occasions narrowly escaped capture by French troops working alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although he conceded that even if they had succeeded, it would of itself not suffice to dismantle al-Qaida.

"It will change nothing directly," Gen. Henri Bentegeat, the chief of staff of French armed forces, said in an interview with France's Europe-1 radio station. He said al-Qaida was "a hydra, so if you catch one head, there will be others." But he added that bin Laden's capture was indispensable "on principle, for justice and for the innumerable victims of these monstrous attacks."

He said 200 French special forces were taking part alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the hunt for bin Laden. "Our men have not been far," he said. "On several occasions, I even think he slipped out of a net that was well closed."

"In Afghanistan, the terrain is extremely favorable to escapes," he added. "There are underground networks everywhere."

Bentegeat did not say when or where those near-captures had taken place. A Ministry of Defense spokesperson refused to provide additional details.

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The French military chief, who was being interviewed after last Thursday's terrorist bombings in Madrid, said he considered al-Qaida "very probably" responsible for the coordinated attacks in the Spanish capital because of their detailed preparation. "It was the same on Sept. 11, the same today in Iraq, where the choice of targets, the choice of methods, the complexity of the operation point to al-Qaida," he said.

Bentegeat said that while France "is certainly not the most threatened," all European countries were more or less threatened by al-Qaida. "I don't think one should be overworried, but one simply should remain very vigilant," he said, noting that French, European and American intelligence services were working in close cooperation against international terrorism.

He also expressed concern that over the past two years heroin production has doubled in Afghanistan where, he added, "organized crime finances international terrorism through drug trafficking." He said terrorist groups were also trying to take advantage of countries that were "adrift," notably in sub-Saharan Africa, like Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.

Asked about French security measures, he said French fighters were permanently on the ready and could scramble within two minutes in the face of any threat. "Not a day goes by without planes taking off to check on a plane that has veered off its path or does not respond by radio," he said.

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