Taliban Rejects Bush Ultimatum

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban rejected President Bush's ultimatum Friday, vowing to continue to protect Osama bin Laden and his terrorist followers even if that provokes a war and the destruction of the regime.

Word of the Taliban's refusal to comply with Bush's blunt demands came from the regime's ambassador to Pakistan, who said there is no evidence linking Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization to the suicide hijackings that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and killed more than 6,000 people.

"If there is no evidence and proof, we're not prepared to give up Osama bin Laden," Abdul Salam Zaeef told a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The United Arab Emirates today cut diplomatic relations with Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement, the official UAE news agency WAM reported.

The news agency said the nation decided on the move after trying to persuade the Taliban government to hand over Bin Laden.

The UAE's action leaves only two nations--Saudia Arabia and Pakistan--that recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, and those ties are strained. Bin Laden is an exiled Saudi, and ties with Pakistan are at the breaking point because Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to support the United States against the Taliban, which controls about 95% of Afghan territory.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer brushed aside the Taliban's rejection.

"The president's message to the Taliban today is the same message that he gave last night, that there will be no negotiations and no discussions. He expects the Taliban to honor the demands that he made in his speech last night, to cease their efforts to support and harbor terrorists and to turn terrorists over to the United States or other authorities."

Asked if Bush rejected the Taliban's response, Fleischer replied: "That's a fair characterization."

The Taliban's information ministry said today its forces had shot down a helicopter belonging to the opposition Northern Alliance--not a pilotless U.S. plane as originally reported.

In an interview, the Afghan consul-general in Peshawar, Najibullah, said he had spoken to Afghans who saw a craft shot down.

He said the aircraft was downed by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. The Taliban are known to have more than 200 Soviet-era SAMs, in addition to more than 100 U.S.-made Stinger missiles.

The refusal to surrender Bin Laden came in the face of a blunt warning from the president in his speech Thursday: "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate."

Bush did not detail the evidence against Bin Laden, asserting that "Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime." But U.S. officials have said the evidence is overwhelming that Bin Laden was the mastermind behind the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Zaeef also said Taliban authorities have rejected a compromise suggested by a council of 1,000 Islamic clerics that Bin Laden be encouraged to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. He said the proposal was not binding on the regime and will be ignored.

Nevertheless, the Frontier Post, a newspaper based in Peshawar, Pakistan, reported Friday that Bin Laden had traveled to Wakhan, an Afghan town near the border with China. The newspaper's account--which could not be confirmed independently--said Bin Laden's movements were in response to the clerical council.

Meanwhile, Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell continued to recruit foreign governments for an ideologically diverse global coalition in which abhorrence of terrorism is the only requirement for membership. On Friday, China signed up despite years of political friction resulting from Washington's criticism of China's human rights record.

Powell said the administration expects China to supply intelligence on Bin Laden's activities and to help Washington locate and freeze his fiscal assets. Powell said it is unlikely that China will be asked to participate in military action against the Taliban.

Bush made no public comments during the day. He spoke by telephone with the leaders of three countries with large Muslim populations--Turkey, Oman and Nigeria--to thank them for expressions of support and condolence. He also scheduled visits next week with the leaders of Canada and Japan, all part of his effort to develop as broad a coalition as possible.

The president spent about 20 minutes Friday with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, who had spent more than two hours with Powell earlier in the day. White House spokesman Sean McCormick said Bush's trip to China next month remains on schedule.

"Both sides have already started our cooperation on the anti-terrorism field, and such cooperation will continue into the future," Tang said as he left the State Department. "We firmly oppose and strongly condemn all forms of terrorism in all their evil acts."

At the end of the day, Bush left for Camp David, giving a thumbs-up salute from the door of the Marine One helicopter to several hundred White House staffers who had turned out on the White House driveway in a flag-waving show of support.

In his Thursday night speech, Bush seemed to broaden the administration's objectives, saying that after U.S. forces finished with Al Qaeda, they would take on "every terrorist group of global reach."

But on Friday, a senior administration official said that Bush's formula covers only truly global organizations--a qualification that apparently leaves out local terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and perhaps even anti-Israel organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

"It's Al Qaeda plus those who harbor them, first," the official said. "I don't think there was ever, frankly, much disagreement that we were going to have to do something very focused." The official said the debate within the administration determined that local terror groups are deplorable but that "global terrorism . . . was the threat."

Meanwhile, the State Department began clearing away some of the diplomatic undergrowth inhibiting participation in the coalition by Pakistan, perhaps the most important country in the world when it comes to dealing with the Taliban. On Thursday and Friday, department officials informed members of Congress that the administration was moving to ease sanctions against Pakistan and India that were imposed after the South Asian rivals exploded nuclear devices.

A State Department official said the sanctions probably will be softened sometime next week. In 1998, the Clinton administration blocked U.S. economic and military assistance to Pakistan and India, along with military and high-technology sales and U.S. support for World Bank loans. In 1999, additional sanctions were applied to Pakistan after Musharraf led a military coup that ousted an elected government. Musharraf remains president.

Musharraf has already pledged full support for U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, but removal of some sanctions will help him explain his stand to a restive public.

In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced that he will fly to Iran next week to attempt to enlist the Tehran regime in the anti-terrorism alliance. It will be the first visit to Iran by a British foreign secretary since the Islamic Revolution there in 1979.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has condemned the attacks with hijacked airliners, but Iran's support for retaliation is uncertain and Britain has been working to bring it on board. Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke with Khatami on Thursday and Straw spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on Sunday.

"The president and the government of Iran have been powerful in their opposition to the Taliban," Straw said.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin gave the strongest signal yet that Russia will play a part in the war on terrorism.

"We are ready to cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism in the widest possible sense," Putin said in an interview with the German ARD network from his vacation home in the southern Russian city of Sochi. "We have not received any specific requests as of yet, but the special services have been cooperating for a long time already. The question is how to bring this cooperation to a qualitatively new level. We are ready to do that."

In Washington, Powell urged the Organization of American States to activate a two-year-old Western Hemisphere Committee Against Terrorism.

"We have this tool," Powell told a special meeting of OAS foreign ministers. "We need it. We must use it."

The organization has already invoked the Rio pact, a Cold War-era treaty that asserts that an attack on one hemispheric country is an attack on all. On Friday, the foreign ministers approved two resolutions, one highlighting the "terrorist threat to the Americas" and the other intended to strengthen cooperation "to prevent, combat and eliminate terrorism."

"Twenty-nine out of the 34 nations represented here today have citizens who were lost in the World Trade Center bombing last week," Powell said. "Truly this attack against one of us was an attack against all of us."

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Kempster reported from Washington and Marshall reported from Islamabad. Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Jim Mann in Washington, Marjorie Miller in London and Maura Reynolds in Moscow contributed to this report.

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