- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

A Pakistani delegation yesterday failed to convince Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in last week's attacks in New York and Washington, and the United States moved closer to military action against the regime harboring the Saudi exile.

Although the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, told the visiting Pakistani military officials he would let a national council decide today whether to deliver bin Laden, the State Department said it didn't expect the outcome to be any different.

"The Taliban, of course, is responding in the way that it always has: that bin Laden and his associates are guests in their country," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters. "Well, it is time for the guests to leave."

Another senior State Department official said later, "We are not holding our breath" in expectation of the Afghan council's decision.

The United States yesterday geared up for a massive diplomatic offensive against bin Laden and his terrorist network, Qaeda, with nearly a dozen senior foreign officials about to descend on Washington this week to discuss their respective roles in the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition.

Meanwhile, Pakistan said the Taliban had massed up to 25,000 fighters with Scud missiles near its border and thousands of Afghans were reported to have headed toward the borders with Pakistan and Iran.

In Islamabad, the government of President Pervez Musharraf closed the border yesterday, but it faced demonstrations in its own country by pro-Taliban groups opposing any U.S. attack on Afghanistan.

Pakistan's military intelligence service is believed to have more influence on the Taliban than anyone else.

After the delegation's unsuccessful meeting with Afghan leadership, however, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said Islamabad's leverage with the Taliban wasn't unlimited.

Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban when it seized power in 1996, announced over the weekend that it would support the United States in its fight against terrorism. According to some reports, it asked for favors in exchange.

The senior State Department official insisted yesterday Islamabad had sought "no conditions" when it offered its backing to Washington, but the United States made clear that the fight against terrorism would be "the most important issue in our relationship."

The Bush administration continued to receive support from foreign governments yesterday, as the State Department announced that the list of countries that lost citizens in last week's attacks had reached 62.

After "positive" and "forthcoming" statements from Iran and Syria, Mr. Powell said yesterday that Yemen had also offered support.

"They have been very helpful recently" in the investigation of last year's attack on the USS Cole, and "now are helping us with respect to leads in this current crisis," Mr. Powell said after a telephone conversation with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The U.S. government has linked bin Laden and his associates to October's attack on the Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors.

Mr. Powell said yesterday "all roads" in the investigation into the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to bin Laden.

"It is becoming clear with each passing hour, with each passing day, that it is the Qaeda network that is the prime suspect, as the president has said, and all roads lead to the leader of that organization, Osama bin Laden, and his location in Afghanistan," he said.

He added that he was "reasonably confident and certain" the Taliban could find bin Laden if it wanted, and that he had seen "nothing to indicate" bin Laden has left Afghanistan.

But Mr. Powell said capturing bin Laden won't be sufficient and Washington's "objective" is to destroy Qaeda.

"It is not enough to get one individual," he said. "It will not be over until we have gotten into the inside of this organization, inside its decision cycle, inside its planning cycle, inside its execution capability, and until we have neutralized and destroyed it."

As part of its coalition-building effort in what President Bush has called "the first war of the 21st century," the administration plans intense talks with allies and other major powers this week, officials said yesterday.

In the next four days, the list of foreign leaders flying to Washington includes British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Italy, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, as well as three top European Union officials.

Separately, the EU has called a meeting of its 15 members on Friday to discuss the crisis.

In most allied capitals, debate over participation in a U.S.-led military operation has intensified since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and different views have emerged.

Britain, Italy, Canada, Norway and Australia appear ready to commit troops and other military aid, while France and Germany have been much more cautious about making promises and warned Washington against hurried decisions.

Mr. Powell, who has spent much of his time speaking with world leaders on the phone about the terrorism crisis, spoke Sunday night with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Yesterday, Mr. Powell tried to reassure Arab governments that the United States has not forgotten the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"We do have to do something about the situation in the Middle East. I carve out part of my day to press and work on that. I never lose sight of the fact that one of the underlying continuing problems we will have is that we have to get into the Mitchell plan and we have to get back to negotiations in due course. I can assure you I haven't taken the U.S. eye off that ball."

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