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From the archives: Bush wants Bin Laden 'Dead or Alive'

September 18, 2001|By Paul Watson And Robin Wright | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — With President Bush declaring that he wants Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," the supreme leader of Afghanistan's Taliban regime on Monday put the fate of the suspected terrorist mastermind--and the country--in the hands of the nation's Islamic clerics.

Mullah Mohammed Omar asked a panel of clerics to decide whether to hand over Bin Laden after Omar received a blunt warning from his main ally, neighboring Pakistan, about the dangers facing Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, met with Omar in his stronghold, the southern city of Kandahar, and told him that he faced an urgent choice: Surrender Bin Laden or suffer massive attacks by U.S. forces, said a senior Pakistani diplomat. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the extreme sensitivity of the talks.

Photos: Osama bin Laden is dead

Despite comments from a Pakistani official over the weekend that the Taliban had 72 hours to turn over Bin Laden, U.S. and Pakistani officials said there was no deadline. The United States is still in the planning stages of diplomatic and military action, officials said.

However, Bush and other U.S. officials made it clear that they are in no mood for compromise with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Taliban leaders urged Afghans to prepare for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States, government media reported today.

Taliban leaders are sending a message to their people: "Stay united and prepare for jihad against U.S. invaders," the reports said.

For three years, the Taliban has been under extreme international pressure to hand over Bin Laden, the suspected terrorist leader who has been indicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. But it was unclear whether Omar would now back down or whether the clerics council would give in to demands for Bin Laden's arrest.

Nevertheless, Monday's events suggested a scenario similar to one in which the Taliban has said it could hand over Bin Laden. Ever since Bin Laden became a suspect in the embassy bombings, Taliban officials have said the United States should put its evidence before a Muslim court and that if the evidence proved strong enough, he would be handed over. Washington has consistently rejected that option.

The Pakistani pressure, and Omar's subsequent decision, came a day after Omar made a rare radio broadcast to his people, saying he was prepared to die and urging them to get ready for war. His decision to convene the Islamic council could be his way of avoiding sole responsibility for handing over Bin Laden, or it could be a way of sharing the blame if the Taliban refuses and finds itself under U.S. attack.

It was unclear how quickly the Islamic council would make its decision.

By making Ahmed the bearer of bad tidings, Pakistan sent an unmistakable sign to the Taliban that its very existence is on the line. Ahmed's words carry enormous weight because Pakistani military intelligence helped form, arm and, at times, command the Taliban as it went from obscurity in 1994 to seizing Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, two years later.

The Pentagon is drawing up war plans aimed at not merely punishing the Taliban but destroying the hard-line Islamic regime altogether, Pakistan's military intelligence chief told Omar.

Ahmed's delegation gave Omar a briefing on evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence and FBI investigators that implicates Bin Laden and outlined the costs of not cooperating, the Pakistani source said.

Several hours later, Taliban radio announced that Omar had called on Muslim clerics from throughout Afghanistan to convene in Kabul for a rare meeting of the religious council, known as a shura.

The Pakistani delegation flew to Kabul late Monday and hopes to observe the meeting. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the prospects for peace until the delegation returns from Kabul.

U.S. officials said they were not prepared to accept anything less than having Bin Laden handed over to the United States, even if the Taliban offered a compromise. And Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the U.S. goal is to destroy Bin Laden's organization.

"I want justice," Bush told reporters during a visit to the Pentagon. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'

"We're going to find those evildoers, those barbaric people who attacked our country," Bush said. "And we're going to hold them accountable, and we're going to hold the people who house them accountable. The people who think they can provide them safe havens will be held accountable. The people who feed them will be held accountable.

"And the Taliban," he said, "must take my statement seriously."

Top Foreign Officials to Visit Washington

Meanwhile, the State Department increased Washington's diplomatic efforts Monday, announcing visits this week by key leaders from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

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