- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Gunners in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul unleashed a thunderous barrage at a plane cruising high overhead yesterday, and the Taliban rulers defiantly repeated their vow to wage holy war against the United States.
However, the shrill rhetoric appeared to mask a sense of desperation as the Taliban appeared to be searching for a way out of the crisis.
The regime offered to release eight aid workers, including two Americans, if Washington stopped its threats and began negotiations. The U.S. government refused.
Afghan authorities also announced they would unconditionally release British journalist Yvonne Ridley, 43, who was arrested last month inside Afghanistan with two Afghan guides.
Early yesterday afternoon, residents of the Afghan capital rushed into the streets when Taliban gunners fired anti-aircraft guns and two missiles at a lone, silver-colored aircraft whose jet trail was visible in the bright blue sky.
The gunners missed their mark, and Taliban authorities admitted the plane's altitude was beyond the range of their air defenses. Afghanistan's airspace is closed to all traffic, and the Taliban said the aircraft was a spy plane.
Kabul residents, accustomed to the sounds of war after more than 20 years of conflict, showed no sign of panic once they realized the city was not under attack.
"Who cares about the attack?" mechanic Najibullah asked, staring toward the sky with his three children. "We have seen so much fighting now, no one is afraid of death."
Last month, the Taliban said it shot down a spy plane over northern Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged the United States had lost contact with an unmanned reconnaissance plane, but had no reason to believe it was shot down.
The United States is massing formidable military forces around Afghanistan to press its demand that the Islamic militia hand over Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Taliban authorities have refused to give him up, but have offered to negotiate with the United States. After repeated American refusals to bargain, the Taliban offered yesterday to free the Christian aid workers two Americans, two Australians and four Germans if the United States stopped threatening war.
"Because of American threats, people are being forced to flee their homes, along with their children and women and old people," the Taliban said. "Are their lives not important?"
The eight workers were arrested in August on charges of preaching Christianity a serious accusation in this strictly Muslim country. Sixteen Afghan employees of the German-based Shelter Now International organization also were arrested.
The Taliban has appealed to Muslims worldwide to join a jihad, or holy war, if the United States attacks. In the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, several thousand people shouted anti-American and anti-British slogans yesterday during a noisy four-hour rally in support of the Taliban and bin Laden.
"Whatever we do, we will never hand over Osama," said Hizbullah, a 16-year-old religious student in Peshawar. "If Americans attack Afghanistan, nothing would make me happier than to kill them. If I saw one after that had happened, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment."
Last night, Taliban radio broadcast poems whose lyrics condemned America. The poems had no accompanying music, which the Taliban has banned.
Neighboring governments have all denounced the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Pakistan, once the Taliban's ally, has pledged full support for the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. Uzbekistan has agreed to let the United States station troops on its soil.

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