- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) Afghanistan's Taliban rulers refused today to hand over alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and warned that U.S. attempts to apprehend him by force could plunge the whole region into crisis.

The refusal by the hard-line Afghan leadership, which has sheltered bin Laden for the last five years, was announced by the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. He spoke after President Bush warned Afghanistan must hand over bin Laden and his lieutenants “or they will share their fate.''

Addressing a joint session of Congress on last night, Mr. Bush also told the Taliban give the United States full access to terrorist training camps and release imprisoned U.S. aid workers, saying the demands were not negotiable. Mr. Bush told U.S. military forces to “be ready'' for war.

However, there was no sign that Mr. Bush's warning was enough to convince Afghanistan's rulers to move against bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Our position on this is that if America has proof, we are ready for the trial of Osama bin Laden in light of the evidence,'' Mr. Zaeef said. Asked if the Taliban were ready to hand bin Laden over, he snapped “No'' but his translator said, “No, not without evidence.''

The envoy also said he had no information on bin Laden's current whereabouts.

Mr. Zaeef said he was sorry people died in the suicide jet attacks last week, but called for the United Nations to investigate the attacks and appealed to the United States not to endanger innocent people in a military retaliation.

He told reporters Mr. Bush's ultimatum poses great danger for Muslims.

“It has angered Muslims of the world and can plunge the whole region into a crisis,'' Mr. Zaeef said. “We are ready to cooperate if we are shown evidence. If American agencies are bent on putting the blame on bin Laden, then they won't be able to catch the real culprits.''

The Taliban envoy added that his government was ready if necessary to defend the country against American attack.

“If they want to show their might, we are ready and we will never surrender before might and force,'' he said. “According to Islam, the blood of anyone who spies for the enemy or sympathizes with it in time of war must be shed.''

At the Pul-e-Khishti mosque in the center of the Afghan capital, Kabul, the preacher told worshippers in the weekly Friday sermon to prepare “to give up your lives and belongings'' if necessary “to defend your religion.''

However, wary Afghans were piling their possessions on carts and trucks and leaving Kabul for fear of U.S. airstrikes.

Mohammed Hussein, his wife and six children loaded their belongings into a pickup truck and headed south to join relatives. “Out of 20 homes on our street most of the families have left,'' he said. “Anyone who can is leaving.''

On a main road leading north of Kabul, Azizullah pushed a cart piled high with pots and pans, a metal trunk and a few tattered carpets. His two daughters appeared pale and weak from dysentery. His 12-year-old boy, Hamidullah, pushed a smaller cart loaded with some mattresses and pillows.

His wife, he said, remained at home because she suffers from rheumatism and cannot walk.

“I don't know where to go,'' said Azizullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “I've been wandering the city trying to find a safe spot. But I have no money and I don't know what to do. Our home is near a military base, and I don't want to stay there with my children.''

U.N. aid agencies said today they were launching a widespread relief effort, sending tents and medicine to nations around Afghanistan. Neighboring nations have closed their borders to prevent a flood of refugees, but many aid workers were nonetheless expecting the worst if fighting starts.

Afghanistan's Islamic clerics urged bin Laden on Thursday to leave the country on his own accord. But they set no deadline for bin Laden to depart and also warned of a jihad, or holy war, against the United States if its forces attacked this impoverished country.

The Taliban, a devoutly Muslim religious militia that controls about 95 percent of the country, have allowed bin Laden to live in Afghanistan since 1996 after the Sudanese government pressured him to leave that country.

The Taliban leadership say they are able to convey information to bin Laden through radio communication with Taliban security personnel who travel with him.

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