A decree issued Thursday by a religious council that encouraged terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily is viewed in the region as an important step forward, though it was swiftly dismissed by the Bush administration.
Political analysts and diplomats in Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan, described the Afghan council's edict as a significant softening of the ruling Taliban's resolve to shelter the Saudi exile. Bin Laden has been labeled by the administration as the prime suspect in last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The wording of the edict--which came in the form of a recommendation to Afghanistan's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar--was elliptical but constituted a shift of position for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement, analysts said.
"This religious council recommends to the political leadership of Afghanistan that it encourage Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily in good time for another destination," reported a radio broadcast from Kabul, the Afghan capital, monitored here.
In Washington, the administration was quick to reject the council's move as insufficient.
"It's time for action, not words," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "And the president has demanded that key figures of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, including Osama bin Laden, be turned over to responsible authorities and that the Taliban close terrorist camps in Afghanistan."
In an address before Congress on Thursday night, President Bush stressed the U.S. position, demanding of the Taliban: "Deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land."
Bush also said: "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate."
Earlier Thursday, a senior Taliban official cast doubt on just how much of an opening the council decision represented.
"We will neither surrender Osama bin Laden nor ask him to leave Afghanistan," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, said in a telephone interview with the Voice of America. "As hosts, we can only ask him to consider to leave but cannot and will not tell him to leave."
Nevertheless, the edict by the Islamic regime's leading religious figures sparked optimism in South Asia for two reasons:
* It marked the first time since Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan five years ago that the Taliban has even suggested that he should leave.
Just a week ago, Omar delivered a defiant radio speech vowing to protect Bin Laden and declaring that the Saudi militant's guerrillas and supporters were "ready to die with dignity and honor."
Last month, Zaeef told Christina B. Rocca, assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, that the U.S. should present evidence against Bin Laden to a court of Islamic scholars before any decision was made by Afghanistan on his fate.
* The obligation to shelter someone seeking protection is so central to Afghan culture that even the carefully worded decree recommending that the Taliban leaders encourage Bin Laden to leave "voluntarily" was seen by many here as tantamount to an eviction notice.
"There are few duties more important to an Afghan" than to offer shelter to anyone who asks, said Amir Usman, Pakistan's former ambassador to Kabul.
Some observers even hailed the edict as a possible opening that might avert the prospect of a U.S.-led military strike against Afghanistan designed to capture Bin Laden, bring down the Taliban regime or both.
"This is a ray of hope," said Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of Pakistan's largest religion-based party, the Jamaat-i-Islami. "From here we can move forward, and there may be a way out of this crisis so we can avoid a bloody war."
"A new element has entered the picture," Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar told reporters Thursday.
There was no word Thursday on what the Taliban's supreme leader will do with the recommendation of the council, which includes more than 1,000 members. But Omar had called the group together and reportedly pledged earlier this week to abide by its recommendation.
The risk of capture would greatly increase for Bin Laden if he was forced to leave the rugged terrain and relative protection of Afghanistan. There are few governments, even in the Muslim world, that would choose to risk U.S. military action in the current climate by knowingly sheltering him.
As pressure builds on Bin Laden, demands have grown louder in Pakistan for the United States to make public the evidence it has against him.
Virtually throughout the Muslim world, governments have denounced last week's attack but said proof of Bin Laden's involvement was needed before taking any military action.
At the White House, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was pressed Thursday for specific evidence linking Bin Laden to last week's hijackings but declined, citing the "ongoing investigation."
But she later added: "I will say this: The organization that we're talking about has a history. There are already indictments out against members of this organization and against Osama bin Laden himself.
"I think that we know who we're dealing with and what we're dealing with here," she said, "and we've known for a long time."
Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington and John Daniszewski in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.