ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The ruling Taliban of Afghanistan rejected demands by the United States yesterday that Osama bin Laden and his aides be immediately handed over to the United States for their suspected role in the terrorism attacks in New York and Washington.
"We are not ready to hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence," the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said at a news conference here. "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 ambassador's remarks seemed to leave no room for compromise between the Taliban and the United States. The Taliban apparently rejected an opening provided Thursday by its council of senior Islamic clerics, who had decreed that bin Laden should be asked to leave Afghanistan "whenever possible."
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there would be "no discussions and no negotiations" with Afghanistan.
Zaeef said he had no "exact information" about bin Laden's whereabouts. Yesterday, Pakistani news papers quoted Taliban sources as saying that bin Laden might have left Afghanistan.
The ambassador was speaking a few hours after President Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress, denounced the Taliban as "traitors to their own faith." He demanded that they hand over bin Laden and his lieutenants and close their training camps and infrastructure, or "share in their fate."
Zaeef warned that the American ultimatums threaten to provoke all Muslims. "It has angered Muslims of the world and can plunge the whole region into a crisis," Zaeef said.
U.S. officials said they remained determined to find bin Laden and to destroy his Al Qaeda organization. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview with the BBC, said "you can't leave a part of that network untouched."
"I've sort of likened Al Qaeda to something like a holding company, and Mr. Osama bin Laden is the chairman, chief executive officer, treasurer," Powell said. "We are not going after the Afghan people. We will be very careful whatever we do ... to make sure that people see in our actions that we are not going after the Afghan people, we are not going after Muslims, we are not going after Arabs, we are going after terrorists."
Here in Pakistan, thousands of people participated in street demonstrations to protest the decision by Pakistan's ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to cooperate with the United States. Crowds of up to 12,000 people attended rallies organized in the cities of Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore. At least three civilians were killed and five police officers injured in clashes in the southern port city of Karachi, wire services reported.
The protests were attended mainly by members of religious parties rather than a cross section of the population and drew fewer people than expected. Calls by Islamic hard-liners for nationwide strikes won only spotty support.
In the capital, Islamabad, a demonstration near the city's main marketplace drew about 2,000 people, and several stores shut down. For the most part, business went on as usual, despite the presence of police in riot gear patrolling near mosques, marketplaces and the city's wide, tree-lined boulevards.
Muhammad Zafran, the 24-year-old owner of a tiny pharmacy, planned to shutter his doors for the afternoon to protest the government's support for the United States. "I believe America is a superpower. But we only accept God as our superpower," Zafran said. "If the religious parties call for a civil war, we will support that."
The protests were another sign of the dilemma faced by Musharraf as he strives to please the United States but also satisfy domestic political groups that support the Taliban. In many quarters, however, Pakistanis expressed agreement with their country's leader.
"I support my president. His words are my words," said Irfan Ahmed, owner of Famous Books, a record, book and video store with movie titles including Titanic and Pearl Harbor. Pakistan, he said, should not be judged by the Islamic hard-liners, who are believed to account for 10 to 15 percent of the population.
Musharraf may soon be rewarded for his cooperation with Washington. According to senior Western diplomats, the United States intends to ease economic sanctions placed on Pakistan after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The U.S. also plans to help Pakistan reschedule about $600 million in debt, the diplomats said.
Pakistan will also benefit soon from an additional $50 million in humanitarian aid from the United States, including funds to help Afghan refugees, diplomats said. More than 2 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, and thousands more have streamed across the border in fear of a U.S. military strike against the Taliban.
After hearing Bush's speech, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry appealed for patience by Washington. "We have noted that the U.S. president has again emphasized that this is a campaign against terrorism, not against a people or a country or a faith," said the spokesman, Riaz Mohammad Khan. "In this campaign, Pakistan is part of the international coalition against terrorism.
"Our president and many world leaders have emphasized the need for patience and deliberation, evidence and managing the response carefully so that innocent people do not suffer in the fight against terrorism," he said.