- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2001

From combined dispatches
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan The Taliban said yesterday that the time had come for the United States to "forget" the September 11 terrorist attacks, as they have been superseded by the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.
"You should forget the September 11 attacks because now there is a new fighting against Muslims and Islam, and the international and global terrorists like America and Britain, they are killing daily our innocent people," Syed Tayyab Agha, spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, told a news conference yesterday in the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak.
The deadly hijackings September 11 were carried out by people in the United States not the Taliban and are "the problem of [President] Bush and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair," he said. "This is not our problem."
He said Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is in a secret location in the area of Kandahar, the militia's home base, and will never leave there.
Mr. Agha also said the Taliban forces would defend territory they still control after a week of retreats across Afghanistan, including Kandahar.
"They have decided to defend the presently controlled areas," he said. "We will try our best and we will defend our nation and we will not give any chance to anybody to disturb our Islamic rule in Kandahar and other provinces."
Mr. Agha said the Taliban forces have no plans to abandon Kandahar and denied reports that local elders had asked them to leave, saying, "No tribal elders have contacted us."
"How could they ask for such a thing against the Taliban?" he added.
He said the Taliban has lost contact with Osama bin Laden and that he is no longer under the militia's control.
"We have no idea where he is," Mr. Agha said. "There is no relation right now. There is no communication."
Mr. Agha said he knew of no members of bin Laden's al Qaeda network in areas under Taliban control and that contact with them had been lost "due to their communication problems."
Yesterday's denial added to a string of confusing Taliban statements on the whereabouts of bin Laden, who has vowed to die rather than be handed over to the United States.
Hours before Mr. Agha spoke, the security chief in Spin Boldak, Mohammed Saeed Haqqani, said bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban and "we are duty bound to protect him."
Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef said Sunday that "Osama is our guest. We will take care of him until the last moment. We don't know where he is."
In Kabul, Northern Alliance Interior Minister Younis Qanooni said yesterday that bin Laden was still in southern Afghanistan, but sometimes traveled to "secret places" in Pakistan, a claim instantly denied by Pakistan.
"There is absolutely no truth in this. Osama bin Laden has never been to Pakistan," government spokesman Anwar Mahmood said.
It was Mr. Qanooni who said on Sunday that bin Laden was hiding in southeast Afghanistan at a base near Muraf, close to the Pakistan border.
Bin Laden, accused of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, has lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban Islamic militia's protection since 1996.
Although the Taliban regime has crumbled since the start of retaliatory U.S. air strikes on Oct. 7, Mr. Agha said it had sufficient military strength to defend its remaining territory.
"At present, our forces in Kandahar and surrounding provinces, they are enough to defend our present controlled areas," he said.
"For the time being, we will defend our provinces under control. When the time comes, the responsibility of taking back other provinces lies on our shoulders."
He said it was "not important if a province falls the people will be with us and we will defeat our enemies."
The Taliban, which once controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan, has been reduced to its southern base of Kandahar, plus the adjoining provinces of Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan, which is also claimed by the rival Northern Alliance.
Its remaining northern stronghold, the city of Kunduz, is under siege by anti-Taliban forces and the target of daily U.S. air strikes.
The U.S.-led coalition against terrorism believed bin Laden was still under the protection of the hard-line Islamic militia.
"Osama bin Laden could be in one of several locations and it is logical to look in areas where the Taliban is firmly in control," coalition spokesman Kenton Keith said in Islamabad.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Tuesday boosted the reward for bin Laden from $5 million to $25 million.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that the reward was offered not only for the capture of bin Laden but for 21 other leaders in his al Qaeda network.


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