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Afghanistan Considers Support for Bin Laden

Taliban Information Minister Qudrutullah Jamal told Reuters by telephone from Kabul, ”Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him.”

“We told [the Pakistani delegation] to give us proof that he did it, because without that how can we give him up,” he said.

A high-level Pakistani team met with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader, for eight hours Monday, delivering an ultimatum from the U.S. to turn over Saudi-born bin Laden or face severe military retaliation.

Pakistani officials gave no details of how the delegation’s visit went.

“They have returned,” said Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Khan. “There is no program to go back.”

Early reports indicate Mohammed Omar set out several conditions for giving up bin Laden.

The conditions, according to Pakistani officials, include that evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the attacks must be presented to the Shura, the Taliban’s inner circle. The Taliban also said that the surrender of bin Laden must be approved by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international organization that includes some militant Islamic groups, and that if bin Laden is tried outside Afghanistan, at least one of the judges must be Muslim.

Pakistan is key to the U.S. diplomatic and military strategy, since it is one of three nations to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban and still has an embassy in Kabul.

Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, decided to relay the ultimatum after days of intense discussions between American and Pakistani officials.

Regional experts say the decision poses risks for General Musharraf, who heads a nuclear-armed nation of 140 million people that is dependent on ties to the West but faces a rise in radical Islam.

Musharraf is due to deliver a nation-wide address later today.

Pakistani Islamic militant groups have staged protests against the government’s support of U.S. policies, but thus far, Musharaff has promised Washington full cooperation.

In response to U.S. requests, Pakistan, already host to 2 million Afghan refugees, virtually shut down its border with Afghanistan. Nearly all trade has halted along the 1,500-mile-long frontier. Pakistani officials also agreed to authorize the use of their airspace for any U.S. military overflights.

The United Nations evacuated international staff from Afghanistan last week. Other humanitarian agencies also withdrew foreign workers, but expressed concern for those who remain in the country and for those who would try to flee over the borders.

“The situation is developing very rapidly right now. We are therefore prioritizing assistance for the internally displaced people,” Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Activities for Afghanistan, told reporters.

Twenty years of war, economic ruin, and a severe drought in its third year have already displaced millions of Afghans. Many live in squalid refugee camps relying on international aid handouts to survive.

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