- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2001

From combined dispatches
KABUL, Afghanistan The leader of Afghanistan's militant Taliban government told his people yesterday not to worry about U.S. attacks on their country because Americans are cowards.
"Americans don't have the courage to come here," Mullah Mohammed Omar said in an interview broadcast by Taliban-controlled Kabul Radio. He urged Afghans to remain calm and go about their business without trying to flee cities that might be targets of U.S. air strikes.
Mullah Omar's vitriol came amid reports that hundreds of his own fighters were deserting to the opposition Northern Alliance, which has stepped up its attacks on the Taliban since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Fighting is raging on several fronts, and "20 percent of the Afghan territory is now controlled by the Northern Alliance," opposition spokesman Abdullah Abdullah told reporters in the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe.
The rebel alliance claimed it had captured the Taliban-controlled Qadis district in the northeast.
Alliance spokesman Mohammed Habil, reached by telephone by the Associated Press, said 30 Taliban soldiers and their commander were captured, and another 120 Taliban troops had defected to the rebels.
Another alliance spokesman, Sayed Najibullah Hashimi, told Reuters news agency that 350 Taliban fighters had switched sides in the westerly province of Badghis yesterday, while 240 had deserted a day earlier in Laghman.
The claims could not be independently confirmed.
The alliance had been in a defensive mode before the death earlier this month of its commander, Ahmed Shah Massood, who was killed by a suicide bomber, but it has since begun attacking Taliban positions.
The opposition also claimed that a Taliban commander in eastern Laghman province, Mohammed Suleman, had joined the opposition alliance together with 70 of his fighters.
A Taliban spokesman, reached by telephone, did not deny Mr. Suleman's defection but said he had been wanted by Taliban military courts for unspecified offenses, and that he had gone over to the rebel side to escape prosecution.
Mullah Omar made no mention of fighting with the Northern Alliance during the radio interview.
Instead, he repeatedly warned the United States to "think and think again" about attacking his country, which drove out Soviet invaders with U.S. assistance in the 1979-1989 war.
"If you attack us, there will be no difference between you and the Russians," the Taliban leader said. "We are peace-loving, and we hate terrorism. The murder of one person is the same as the murder of all humanity."
The United States has threatened military action against Afghanistan unless the Taliban hands over its "guest," Osama bin Laden, whom the Americans consider the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In other developments yesterday:
* Taliban officials, acknowledging that dissent was spreading in areas under their control, said they had arrested six persons for distributing "pro-American" pamphlets that called for the return of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah.
* British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an interview with BBC that he has seen "incontrovertible" evidence linking bin Laden to the terror attacks on the United States. He did not give further details.
* Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told CNN that hopes were dim that the Taliban would hand over bin Laden.
"I would say, yes, we haven't been able to succeed in moderating their views on surrendering Osama bin Laden," said Gen. Musharraf, who has sent two abortive missions to Mull Omar to try to persuade him to surrender bin Laden.
* In the eastern city of Jalalabad, the Taliban's order to the population not to flee was largely ignored.
Video pictures obtained by Reuters showed the once-bustling market city as a virtual ghost town with shops closed, streets nearly empty and houses locked and barred.
In Kabul, meanwhile, the Taliban put on a business-as-usual air by resuming the trial of eight foreign aid workers who have been held since early August on charges of spreading Christianity.
Taliban Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib told the four Germans, two Australians and two Americans:
"I now want to say to you again that the current developments in the face of America's possible attack will not affect the proceedings of the trial. There will be no discrimination or injustice against you."
The eight members of the German-based Christian charity Shelter Now International, who have denied trying to convert Afghans, were represented for the first time by Atif Ali Khan, a Pakistani lawyer who arrived in Kabul at the weekend.
The trial was immediately adjourned for up to 15 days to give Mr. Khan time to plan his defense.

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