ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After days of denying that they knew anything about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban said yesterday that they have the Saudi exile in their custody and are hiding him for his own protection.
"He's under the control of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and only security people know where he is," the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told a group of two dozen reporters gathered at his home in the Pakistani capital.
Bin Laden is moving from place to place for his safety, said Zaeef, who reiterated the Taliban position that he would be given up only if the United States provided evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the terrorist attacks on the East Coast.
Zaeef said bin Laden has not responded to the suggestion from Afghan clerics and the Taliban spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, that he leave of his own volition.
"The ulema [council of clerics] recommendation was handed to him," Zaeef said. "There has been no response."
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld greeted the news with skepticism.
"It was just a few days ago that they said they didn't know where he was," Rumsfeld said on NBC's Meet the Press, "so I have no reason to believe anything a Taliban representative has said."
If the Taliban assertion served as any hint that there might be room for negotiation, the White House appeared to reject the possibility yesterday.
"The president has said we're not negotiating," Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, said on Fox News Sunday. "We've told the Taliban government what they should be doing. They've got to turn not only Osama bin Laden over but all of the operatives of the [alleged terrorist] al-Qaida organization. They've got to stop being a haven where terrorists can train."
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf , who sent two abortive missions to Omar to try to persuade him to surrender bin Laden, said he was not optimistic that bin Laden would be given up.
"I would say, yes, we haven't been able to succeed in moderating their views on surrendering Osama bin Laden," Musharraf told CNN, "but we have our doors open and some progress has been made, and we hope a little more progress can be made."
Apparently, the Taliban are feeling increasing pressure at home as well as abroad. In Kabul yesterday, authorities arrested six people distributing pamphlets calling for the return of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the king of Afghanistan who was overthrown in 1973 and now lives in Rome. Muslim clerics in several of Afghanistan's eastern provinces recommended that authorities torch the homes of anyone supporting Zahir.
The pamphlets urged people to support Zahir, dislodge the Taliban and reject the idea that the United States is their enemy, according to the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), a private news agency in Pakistan with ties to the Taliban.
Omar made a broadcast on the Taliban's Voice of Shariat radio last night, warning the 86-year-old exiled king to stay out of Afghanistan's affairs.
"Forget Afghanistan, you won't be able to solve the issue of Afghanistan in your lifetime," Omar said in a broadcast monitored by Reuters. "How dare you think you can return to Afghanistan backed by the United States? How are you going to rule the country? How can you think of such things?"
Zahir met with Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, and other U.S. congressional leaders in Rome yesterday and reportedly said he would not oppose a United States effort to topple the Taliban.
"We have a common struggle against terrorism," Zahir said.
"All of America is looking to the king to play a key role here," Weldon said, "and help us coalesce those who oppose the Taliban and those who oppose Osama bin Laden's presence in their country.
"His wish is that the U.N. play a role. But he did not dismiss the notion that if the U.N. could not agree, that a U.S.-led force of allies would in fact liberate his country and allow this process to go forward."
In Islamabad, the Taliban ambassador dismissed the notion that the former king would have any legitimacy in Afghanistan.
"Any government that is being forced on Afghan people by outside forces, that is the United States or any other country, we will consider as a puppet government," said Zaeef, as a man in a chain-link skullcap with a black patch over his right eye translated the words into English.
"We will deal with them as a puppet government of the Communist regime that we dealt with before."
The Taliban leadership, meanwhile, appeared to remain committed to the harsh policies for which it has become known. Yesterday, Kabul authorities resumed the trial of eight foreign aid workers on charges of preaching Christianity. The trial had been delayed in recent weeks amid fears of a U.S. retaliation after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.