- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

Afghanistan's Taliban said yesterday that Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, was missing a claim the United States dismissed as not credible.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said removing the Taliban from power was not among Washington's current objectives, but he called on the Kabul regime to "come to its senses" and deliver bin Laden.
He also said the Bush administration will publish a document with evidence linking the Sept. 11 strikes to the Saudi exile and his terrorist network, al Qaeda.
Word that bin Laden had disappeared came yesterday from the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, and was later confirmed by a Taliban spokesman in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where most members of the regime's leadership reside.
Mr. Zaeef said Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, had sent emissaries to inform bin Laden of a decision Thursday by Afghanistan's Muslim clergy that he should leave the country voluntarily. In spite of a two-day search, however, "he has not been traced," Mr. Zaeef said.
Abul Hai Mutmaen, a Taliban spokesman, later told Reuters news agency, "We have still not been able to deliver the clerics' message to him because we could not find him."
Mr. Powell said in Washington that he wasn't "ready to put any credence into" the Taliban's report.
"The Taliban may be trying to find a way to get themselves out of the terrible box they are in," he said in an NBC interview.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said the administration will not be "deterred by comments" that bin Laden "may be missing."
"We don't simply believe it," she told Fox News. "The Taliban is going to have to begin to understand it has a very tough choice to make."
Asked whether he believed the Taliban had lost track of bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on CBS: "Of course not. They know where he is."
An anti-Taliban opposition leader told reporters at the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, that he believed bin Laden was in hiding in southern Afghanistan along with Mullah Omar.
"He is as dangerous as he used to be. He has gone into hiding alongside Mullah Omar," said Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, which is recognized as Afghanistan's government by the United Nations.
Although Mr. Powell acknowledged bin Laden and al Qaeda "are very intertwined with the Taliban leadership," he said "the nature of the regime in Afghanistan is not uppermost in our minds right now."
"I'm not going to say that it has become one of the objectives of the United States government to either remove or put in place a different regime," he told ABC. "But this regime, clearly, is a regime that has not done much for its people. It's repressing its people in incredible ways, unthinkable ways."
Mr. Powell said the administration will present proof of bin Laden's involvement in the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"In the near future, we'll be able to put out on paper a document that will describe quite clearly the evidence that we have linking him to this attack," he said during the NBC interview. "I'm absolutely convinced that the al Qaeda network, which he heads, was responsible for this attack."
Miss Rice said the United States will not "do anything that jeopardizes the investigation that is ongoing," but at some point "we are going to be laying out a case." She rejected the Taliban's demands for proof of bin Laden's guilt as "misplaced."
The administration also said yesterday it is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's apprehension, in addition to the $5 million the FBI put on his head two years ago, after the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
"Twenty-five million dollars is a great deal of money, and I feel there might be somebody so motivated" in Afghanistan who could trade information for the money, Mr. Powell said.
He denied news reports that Saudi Arabia has refused to grant the United States the use of a major air base for possible strikes against Afghanistan.
"They have been very responsive to all the requests we have placed on them," he said of the Saudi government. "There is no show-stopper with respect to what we have asked of the Saudis, but I don't want to go into what we have not yet asked of them."
Weekend reports from Saudi Arabia quoted an unidentified official as saying the United States cannot use the Prince Sultan Air Base, south of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for retaliatory attacks.
"Saudi Arabia will not accept any infringement on its national sovereignty, but it fully backs action aimed at eradicating terrorism and its causes," the official said, according to the Associated Press.
The Prince Sultan Air Base hosts about 4,500 U.S. military personnel and an undisclosed number of warplanes. Aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone over southern Iraq take off from there.
Asked whether Washington had any evidence of Iraqi involvement with bin Laden and al Qaeda, Mr. Powell said:
"There are some reports of linkages, but not to the extent that I would say today there is a clear link. But we are looking for links and we are watching very, very carefully."
Mr. Powell stressed that the United States has "no illusions" about the hostile intentions of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and that it has always had the ability to strike at his regime "if that seems to be the appropriate thing to do."

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