|Taliban defies Bush as debate rages over bin Laden's fate|
by Said Mohammad Azam KABUL, SEPT 2
"Without evidence, no," Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef told reporters in Islamabad when asked if the Taliban would bow to intense US pressure to extradite the main suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
"Our position is that if America has evidence and proof, they should produce it. We are ready for the trial of Osama bin Laden in the light of the evidence," Zaeef said.
The Taliban has stated that any trial process would have to be instigated by the Afghan Supreme Court, with senior Muslim clerics from three members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference participating as observers.
Handing over bin Laden in the current situation would be "an insult to Islam," Zaeef said.
Hours later, Pakistan appealed to the Taliban to consider the consequences for the Afghan people if it ignored an edict from Afghanistan's religious leaders recommending that bin Laden be asked to leave the country voluntarily.
"We hope that the Taliban leadership, keeping in view the gravity of the situation, will take a prompt decision ... which satisfies the concerns and demands of the international community," said spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan.
However, Ambassador Zaeef argued that Thursday's edict from the Afghan ulema, or clerics, was advisory in nature and therefore non-binding.
The edict, with its call for a jihad against the United States in the event of military strikes on Afghanistan, was read out during Friday prayers in mosques across Afghanistan on Friday.
The spiritual head of Kabul's main Wazir Akbar Khan mosque said the United States would be defeated in the same manner as the British and Soviet "invaders" of the past.
"Do not be afraid of death," he told the congregation.
"Bush has called it a crusade, so it's not a war against Afghans, Arabs or any other nation. It's a war against Muslims all over the world."
The debate over bin Laden's fate intensified after US President George W. Bush gave the Taliban a stern warning in a rare speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress.
"The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate," he said.
Bin Laden, already indicted in New York for his alleged role in the two US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, has denied all US allegations of terrorism.
He has been living in Afghanistan under the wing of the Taliban since 1996. Rumours were rife Thursday that he may have already left the country, possibly for Chechnya or Central Asian states where he has links with Islamist militants.
But Pakistani sources with close links to bin Laden told AFP he was still in Afghanistan, relishing the prospect of confrontation with the United States.
"This is the moment he has been waiting for. His prayers are coming true," one source said.
Taliban ambassador Zaeef said he had no "exact information" about bin Laden's whereabouts.
As US aircraft carriers, warplanes and troops deployed to regions around Afghanistan, aid agency sources said Friday that more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees were threatening to swamp camps in Pakistan and on the Iranian border as terrified citizens fled in fear of a massive US attack.
A UN official in Islamabad said the Taliban had requested the United Nations suspend all communications from Kabul to the outside world.
"The United Nations has issued a note verbale asking the Taliban authorities to permit one high frequency radio in each UN office to continue life-saving operations," the official said.
Fierce fighting also broke out in two northern Afghan provinces, where anti-Taliban opposition forces claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on the regime.
Opposition spokesman Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem said "huge attacks" were launched Thursday afternoon in Hazrat Sultan district just north of Aibak, the provincial capital of Samangan, and in the neighbouring province of Balkh.
Leaders of the loose alliance of opposition forces based mainly in the northeast of Afghanistan have offered their full support to any US attack against the radical militia.
But the opposition has been hit by the loss of its commander, Ahmad Shah Masood, in a suicide bomb attack this month.
Meanwhile, four people were killed as hardline Islamic groups opposed to Pakistan's support for possible US strikes on Afghanistan clashed with police in Karachi Friday, but a feared wave of violent mass protests across the country failed to materialise.