- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Officials in Pakistan believe Afghanistan's rulers, beset by a fierce drought and international isolation, are ready to consider a compromise under which Saudi terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden could face trial in a third country.

Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, who met this month with the Afghan Taleban militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said the Taleban would consider allowing Islamic scholars to meet abroad to hear evidence against bin Laden and decide his fate.

It is the first time the idea of a trial outside Afghanistan has been raised.

"Mullah Omar said that he was ready for religious scholars from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and a third Muslim country to collect in some place and, having seen the evidence, then this group would decide what is to be done to him," Gen. Haider said in an interview.

"If we speak to the Taleban, it is possible that [the scholars] could meet in another country."

Until now Mullah Omar, the reclusive and one-eyed Taleban leader, has refused to hand over the Saudi dissident to any foreign government. Bin Laden has been charged by a New York court with masterminding the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, which killed 224 persons.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council imposed a second round of sanctions on the Taleban, including an arms embargo, to press for his extradition.

The sanctions come at a time of worsening drought and civil war in Afghanistan. More than 1 million people are facing famine this year, and already 500,000 have fled their homes in search of food.

The Taleban has tried to win international approval by outlawing the production of opium. The fields of Afghanistan, which last year produced the world's largest heroin crop, are this year largely free of the drug, according to a U.N. survey.

But the issue of the Saudi terrorist remains the biggest hurdle to the Taleban's hopes of international diplomatic recognition.

In the past, it has offered to put bin Laden on trial in Afghanistan if the United States provided evidence against him. It also offered to have a group from the Organization of the Islamic Conference keep him under surveillance inside Afghanistan.

As a third proposal, it has suggested that Islamic scholars from three countries could hold a trial in Afghanistan. Now the militia appears ready to consider a trial abroad, and Pakistan is supportive of the idea.

"If we agree to this proposal of having scholars from three individual countries, maybe something will come out of it," Gen. Haider said.

"I think the new administration in America should look at the problem with a fresh approach. To break the ice, they should create some flexibility in their demands also."

As the Taleban's most important ally, Pakistan is itself facing growing pressure over its close links with the hard-line regime.

Afghanistan's drought, the worst in 30 years, has forced 150,000 refugees to flee into Pakistan. Islamabad says it cannot afford to handle the sudden influx.

Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, also has suggested that a trial for bin Laden could be held outside Afghanistan.

"Between the American and the Afghan extreme stances, it is possible that the United States and Afghanistan can choose another country where bin Laden can have a fair trial," Gen. Musharraf said in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper this month.

Taleban leaders consistently have refused to hand over the Saudi, who they say is a "guest" in their country. They say the United States has not provided evidence against him, and they have rejected U.S. proposals for dealing with the problem.

"The Taleban stand by their old stance that Osama will not be handed over to any country," the Taleban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said this week. "But we are ready for talks to find a solution to the issue."

Bin Laden is now thought to be living in a base in Oruzgan province in central Afghanistan. Last October fearing a U.S. missile strike he left his main camp 20 miles west of Kandahar, where the Taleban has its headquarters in southern Afghanistan.

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