- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban yesterday, further isolating the Kabul regime, as the United States prepares for military action against it for harboring Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, al Qaeda.

Washington welcomed the Saudi decision, which came three days after the United Arab Emirates cut ties with the Taliban. But it stopped short of urging Pakistan the only country that still maintains relations with Afghanistan to follow suit.

The Saudi government accused the Taliban of refusing to hand over "criminals to justice," though it didn't specifically mention bin Laden, identified by the United States as the prime suspect in this month's attacks in New York and Washington.

The attacks are "defaming" Islam and "Muslims' reputation in the world," the Riyadh government said in a statement released by the official Saudi news agency.

Since it seized power in 1996, the Taliban has made Afghanistan "a center for attracting, training and recruiting a number of gullible men from different lands, especially citizens of the kingdom, in order to carry out criminal acts that violate all faiths and creeds," the statement said.

It lashed out at the Taliban for continuing "to use its land to harbor, arm and encourage those criminals in carrying out terrorist attacks which horrify those who live in peace and the innocent, and spread terror and destruction in the world."

Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's birthplace, stripped him of his citizenship in 1994.

The Taliban repeated yesterday its threat that those helping the United States would face the wrath of its holy warriors.

In Washington, President Bush said he was "most pleased" with the Saudi move.

The State Department also welcomed the Saudi decision.

"It constitutes further evidence that the international community of nations speaks with one voice on this issue," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

He refused to reveal what other steps the Saudis are prepared to take in support of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and reiterated Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's statement from earlier this week that Saudi Arabia has responded positively to all U.S. requests so far.

A senior State Department official later identified military assistance as one of the areas of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.

"We have gotten very, very good cooperation in the military area," the official said. "There is a joint operations center up and running, there is a whole lot of cooperation going on."

Asked whether the United States wanted Islamabad to sever relations with the Taliban, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The United States has been working very closely with Pakistan and has been very satisfied with everything Pakistan has done."

Islamabad said yesterday it had no intention of cutting its relations with the Taliban.

"I think we should maintain contact," Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf told reporters. "At least there should be one country who ought to be able to have an access to them, to be able to engage them."

Pakistan also warned Washington against trying to topple the hard-line regime.

"We must not make the blunder of trying to foist a government on the people of Afghanistan," said Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

"Afghan groups are asking for foreign military assistance," he told a news conference in Islamabad, referring to the opposition Northern Alliance. "And we fear that any such decision on the part of foreign powers to give assistance to one side or the other in Afghanistan is a recipe for great suffering for the people of Afghanistan."

Mr. Boucher said the U.S. charge d'affaires in Rome, William Pope, met with the former king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, yesterday "to assess the situation in Afghanistan."

After the Saudi decision, the Taliban faced virtual isolation from the rest of the world, with Russia, China, Iran and India all against the regime.

With the overt approval of Moscow, the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are also cooperating with the United States.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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