Three American officials and two Taliban representatives said a fight broke out three weeks ago in Afghanistan between bin Laden's bodyguards and a group of Taliban officers assigned to watch over him.
After the fight, the officials said, bin Laden was expelled from Kandahar, where he had taken refuge with his family. He was isolated in the countryside and was stripped of his satellite telephones, which American officials said allowed him to plot with fellow radicals throughout the world.
"There is friction between him and the Taliban," one senior American official said. "They have tried to constrain him for the first time, and tried to limit his communications."
"It's a good sign," he said, indicating that bin Laden, the Saudi exile indicted on charges of masterminding the deadly bombings of two American Embassies in Africa in August, may have worn out his welcome with the Taliban, an armed religious movement that has sheltered him since 1996.
The Taliban has shown no sign that it is willing to deliver bin Laden to the United States. But one official said the Taliban had sent a clear signal that its desire to protect bin Laden is waning.
Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, a senior Taliban official, said the Saudi fugitive had become a problem. "His presence is not a benefit to the people of Afghanistan," he said, because it contributes to the nation's pariah status. But bin Laden poses "a puzzle for the Afghan leadership" to solve, he said, because the Islamic Taliban cannot be seen to betray a fellow Muslim.
The senior American officials said they were not certain where bin Laden is, only that he and his Taliban guards move from place to place in the stony wilds of Afghanistan. Officially, the Taliban also say they have no idea of bin Laden's whereabouts.
But a Taliban representative said the Afghans had sent an emissary to the United States asking how to deal with bin Laden without seeming to double-cross him, and had asked Saudi Arabia if it would take care of his wives and children.
Most of the Taliban officials and the three senior American officials who discussed the situation demanded anonymity, but all gave similar accounts of the breach between bin Laden and the Taliban.
On Feb. 10, they said, bin Laden's bodyguards became furious when a group of 10 or more Taliban officers tried to replace them. By one account, automatic weapons were fired.
After the fight, "bin Laden found himself in a confined and difficult situation," said Mujahid, the Taliban's representative-designate at the United Nations.
Three days later, the Taliban leadership formally replaced bin Laden's bodyguards with members of their intelligence service and foreign ministry, instructing their men to keep bin Laden from public view, the officials said.
"Our leadership decided to cut all communications from him, and even his telephone set has been taken from him," Mujahid said. "He has been told no foreigner can talk to him. Ten bodyguards were provided for him. The duty of the bodyguards was to supervise him and observe that he will not contact any foreigner or use any communication system in Afghanistan. He is now isolated."
The fight broke out over the degree of control the Taliban would have over bin Laden, another Taliban representative said.
It came a week after Karl F. Inderfurth, an Assistant Secretary of State, met in Pakistan with Jalil Akhund, the Taliban's deputy foreign minister, and repeated American demands to turn over bin Laden.
The Taliban, citing Islamic law and Afghan custom, say they cannot expel him.
"The situation is a puzzle for the Afghan leadership," Mujahid said. "In World War II, we couldn't hand over German citizens living in Afghanistan to the Allied forces. Regarding Osama bin Laden, if we would do something in this regard, it is totally against the Afghan character." bin Laden is considered a hero in Afghanistan for his financial and military support of the Afghan rebels, who defeated Soviet invaders in the 1980's.
"On the other side," said Mujahid, "his presence is not a benefit to the people of Afghanistan."
The Taliban, a radical Islamic movement with few friends among nations, desperately wants international recognition and foreign aid. It will receive little while it shelters bin Laden.
Though mutual mistrust complicates any cooperation, and some senior American intelligence officials are not convinced that the Taliban will ever betray bin Laden, the Taliban's leaders have at least three ways to deal with him that would be acceptable to the United States, senior American officials said.
They could arrange secretly for members of another nation's intelligence service to learn of his whereabouts in Afghanistan.
They could deliver him discreetly to a neighboring country, where American law-enforcement and intelligence officers could try to apprehend him.
Or they could keep bin Laden incommunicado in the hope that he might fade as a source of anti-American terrorism.
Some American officials think this last solution the best, since it holds no risk of making bin Laden a martyr, which could inspire fresh attacks against the United States from his followers.
Others want to see him apprehended, whatever the risk.
"Afghanistan is the safest place in the world for me," bin Laden said last year.
If that is no longer true, he has very few alternatives, American officials said.
Somalia is one and Iraq is another, they said, but it would be very difficult for him to travel undetected, and neither nation can guarantee the protection he has enjoyed until now.