Taliban officials say they can't locate terrorist bin Laden

U.S. leaders discount assertion, saying claim is `laughable'

`They know their country'

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 24, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As the United States stepped up its campaign to hunt down Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban officials said yesterday that the suspected terrorist could not be found, despite a two-day search.

American officials, who have been moving military forces toward the Middle East and South Asia as they press their demands for the Taliban to give up bin Laden, called that assertion laughable.

"They know their country," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "They have networks throughout the country, and it is just not believable that the Taliban do not know where [bin Laden's al Qaeda] network can be located and found and either turned over or expelled."

Rumsfeld, who was speaking on CBS' Face the Nation, told reporters afterward that some factions of the Taliban were "pretending they don't know where al Qaeda is located, which is laughable."

Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan told the Associated Press yesterday that emissaries dispatched by the Taliban government to find bin Laden had been searching unsuccessfully for the Saudi-born militant for the past two days.

Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had sent messengers to inform bin Laden that the country's Muslim clerics had decided that he should leave the country voluntarily, but would not be forced out. The search, he said, was unsuccessful.

President Bush has given Afghanistan's militant Islamic regime an ultimatum: Hand over the alleged mastermind of the suicide plane attacks on New York and Washington, shut down his terrorist training camps and turn over his associates, or face a U.S. military attack.

The Taliban have been insisting that the United States provide proof that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks Sept. 11 in New York and at the Pentagon in which more than 6,000 people are either dead or missing.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States was planning to offer evidence linking bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire, to the suicide attacks.

"We are hard at work bringing all the information together, intelligence information, law enforcement information," Powell told NBC's Meet the Press.

Increasing pressure

At the same time, the United States has been increasing military pressure against the Taliban by calling up more than 10,000 Air National Guard Air Force Reserve troops to active duty and deploying B-52 bombers, capable of inflicting tremendous destruction, to an undisclosed location.

After being forced out of Sudan in 1996, bin Laden has been living as a guest of the Taliban government. He is believed to have been living in the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan, where he has access to secret camps and hideouts.

There also were reports that opposition forces in northern Afghanistan were involved in intense fighting with the Taliban yesterday. According to some accounts, the rebels may have killed at least 80 Taliban fighters and captured at least 200 more.

Reports coming out of Afghanistan have been difficult to confirm because neighboring countries have shut down their borders and most aid officials and United Nations workers have fled the country.

Afraid of potential military action, thousands of Afghans are fleeing their homes, seeking refuge in the countryside or attempting to slip illegally out of the country into Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran.

Protests in Pakistan

Afghanistan's neighbors have been worried they might pay a heavy price for any attacks by the United States. For a second day, religious parties in Pakistan protested President Pervez Musharraf's decision to side with the United States.

The United States has offered some rewards for his cooperation. Tomorrow, Pakistan and the United States are to sign an agreement to reschedule $600 million of debt, government officials said yesterday.

President Bush announced Saturday that economic sanctions against India and Pakistan would be lifted in an attempt to bolster support for the anti-terrorism campaign. The United States imposed the economic sanctions on both countries when they engaged in competitive nuclear weapons testing in 1998. Other U.S. sanctions placed on Pakistan after Musharraf seized control of the country's elected government will not be eased, however.

Pakistan officials are preparing for meetings this week with U.S. officials on how to proceed if there are strikes against bin Laden and the Taliban. They are hoping the talks will help ease some of the division created in Pakistan by pro-Taliban political parties who condemn cooperation with the United States in hunting down bin Laden.

"By cooperating with the United States, we can ... ensure there are no civilian casualties," Tariq Aziz, principal secretary to Musharraf, told Reuters yesterday.

"We'll help them in moderating their actions, reducing the intensity of their actions," he said.

`A courageous decision'

Powell said yesterday that the United States was sensitive to Musharraf's position - and mindful of how important stability is here, not least because Pakistan has nuclear capability.

"Everything I have seen over the last two weeks convinces me that President Musharraf made a courageous decision, and he did it with the full awareness of the potential domestic consequences," Powell said.

"He is supported by all of his military commanders and all of those in the government, so I am confident that Pakistan will remain stable, and I have no concerns about their nuclear program," Powell said.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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