Taliban leader to let Islamic council decide whether to hand over bin Laden
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A grand Islamic council in Afghanistan should decide the fate of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in last week’s terror attacks in the United States, the Taliban’s supreme leader said Monday.
The announcement by Mullah Mohammed Omar came after a Pakistani delegation met with him and delivered a blunt message to Afghanistan’s radical Taliban rulers: Hand over bin Laden or be hit by a punishing retaliatory strike from a U.S.-led international coalition.
The Islamic council Omar spoke about was scheduled to convene in Kabul, the capital, on Tuesday. The Pakistani delegation, which came to Kabul after meeting with Omar in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, stayed Monday night in hopes of influencing its ruling – and possibly heading off a U.S. strike.
It wasn’t clear if even a positive response from the Taliban could avert war, or if the Taliban could be persuaded to dismantle bin Laden’s terror network even if they hand him over to the United States. Bin Laden’s al-Qaida group is said to operate training camps in several Afghan provinces including eastern Nangarhar, Kunar, Paktia and Kandahar.
The meeting in Kandahar took place amid growing tensions Monday along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which Pakistan virtually closed by halting the movement of all goods except for food and by keeping throngs of frightened Afghan refugees from entering Pakistan.
The neighboring nations each beefed up its military presence along the 1,500-mile border. And the Taliban closed their airspace to all international flights, forcing the 110 flights a day that normally fly over Afghanistan to take alternative paths.
The likelihood of a U.S. strike is transforming the alliances that have held sway in this region since the mid-1990s, driving a wedge between Pakistan and its Taliban allies and cementing ties between Pakistan and its erstwhile Cold War partner, America.
Pakistan has promised ”full cooperation” with Washington in the event of a U.S. assault on Afghanistan – an event considered likely because of the safe haven the Taliban have given bin Laden since 1996.
There was hope Pakistan could use its clout with the Taliban – forged over eight years of close military, economic and diplomatic ties – to persuade them to reverse their decision, stated repeatedly in the days since the terror attacks, never to hand over bin Laden.
That hope received a tenuous boost by Omar’s announcement, read Monday night over the Taliban-run Radio Shariat, that the Islamic council, or ulema, would decide the issue.
Omar’s statement said that the Pakistani delegation insisted ”we should try to prevent a U.S. attack.” However, it gave no indication whether Omar will be making any recommendation to the ulema.
According to the Radio Shariat broadcast, the gathering of the Islamic council will involve 20 of the country’s pre-eminent clerics.
The Pakistani delegation was led by Lt.-Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, chief of the Interservices Intelligence, the Pakistani agency believed to have played a part in the creation in the mid-1990s of the Taliban, a devoutly Muslim religious militia that now rules about 95 percent of Afghanistan.
Before the talks began, a senior Pakistani official said the delegation would limit its appeal to the handover of bin Laden, though the Americans also want the Taliban to deliver all of the millionaire Saudi exile’s aides and destroy his facilities.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the United States will make its own overture to Taliban officials in the next few days to expel bin Laden’s network. As for bin Laden himself, President Bush said Monday that he wanted him ”dead or alive.”
There was no indication of a deadline being given to the Taliban, but a Pakistan military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier that the Taliban would be told that a strike could occur as early as this weekend.
Pakistan has agreed to a list of U.S. demands for a possible attack on Afghanistan, including closing its border with its western neighbor, exchanging intelligence material, and allowing a multinational force to use its airspace and soil.
But Islamabad is also asking that any military action be accompanied by a U.N. Security Council resolution, according to a Pakistani military official.
The Pakistani government’s decision to support the United States has stirred protests from hard-line Muslims. Demonstrators have burned U.S. flags, shouted their support of bin Laden, and warned the government they would take up arms for the Taliban.
Most of Pakistan’s 140 million people are devout but relatively moderate Muslims. However, there are several strong militant Islamic groups operating in the country and thousands of religious schools that turn out young boys dedicated to jihad – or holy war. Most of these militant groups are well armed and could pose a threat to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s rule.
Not only is bin Laden the prime suspect in the attacks Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was earlier indicted in the United States on charges of masterminding the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.
The United States fired cruise missiles into eastern Afghanistan following the 1998 bombings. The Taliban’s refusal to surrender bin Laden after the embassy bombings provoked two rounds of U.N. sanctions that have cut off funds to its national airline and isolated its leaders.
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