By JOHN F. BURNS with CHRISTOPHER S. WREN
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 21 — The ruling Taliban of Afghanistan today further complicated the status of Osama bin Laden and rejected the ultimatum of the United States that he and his lieutenants be handed over to answer for their suspected role in last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said at a news conference in Islamabad, “Our position in this regard is that if the Americans have evidence, they should produce it.” If they can prove their allegations, he said, “we are ready for a trial of Osama bin Laden.”
Asked again whether Mr. bin Laden would be surrendered, the ambassador replied, “Without evidence, no.” In response to another question, he said he had no “exact information” as to whether Mr. bin Laden was still in Afghanistan. He said the Taliban would have nothing more to say regarding Mr. bin Laden.
The ambassador spoke in Arabic, suggesting that his comments were intended for Islamic countries and the one billion Muslims around the world.
The United States had created many enemies for itself in world hotspots, Mullah Zaeef contended, and compared to these foes, Mr. bin Laden was a very small one.
The ambassador’s defiant comments quashed suggestions that a decree promulgated on Thursday by the Taliban’s senior Muslim clerics might open the way to the handover of Mr. bin Laden. Mullah Zaeef described the clerics’ decision as a suggestion and not a judicial decision.
On Thursday Afghanistan’s senior Muslim clerics issued an edict that suggested that Mr. bin Laden might be persuaded to leave the country.
The White House quickly rejected the move, saying it did not “meet American requirements” that Afghanistan immediately hand over the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In a speech on Thursday night to a joint session of Congress President Bush demanded that the Taliban promptly deliver Mr. bin Laden and the rest of his network to American authorities and “immediately and permanently” close down terrorist training camps inside Afghanistan.
“These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion,” Mr. Bush said.
The earlier decision by a grand council of nearly 1,000 clerics in Kabul, the Afghan capital, had come after days of refusals by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to surrender Mr. bin Laden or end the sanctuary the Taliban have given him and his armed force, Al Qaeda (pronounced al-KYE-dah). But it was not clear where Mullah Omar stood on the decree — whether he had inspired it, whether he would accept it — or whether Mr. bin Laden would comply.
The decree and the seemingly contradictory statement from the Afghan ambassador served only to intensify speculation as to what the Taliban are up to, or even whether they have any plan to extricate themselves from the crisis.
In any case, they appeared to do nothing to deter the Bush administration from its readiness to use military force if necessary to capture or kill Mr. bin Laden.
In the religious decree, or fatwa, issued earlier Thursday, the Afghan Islamic clerics had left little doubt that they were acting under the pressure of American military threats, and made their own threat, of a worldwide holy war, or jihad, against the United States in response to any American thrust into Afghanistan.
Although Mr. bin Laden declared a jihad against the United States five years ago, calling for the killing of American civilians and military personnel, the Taliban have not threatened a jihad of their own until the United States demanded Mr. bin Laden’s handover last week.
The clerics said: “To avoid the current tumult, and also to allay future suspicions, the Supreme Council of the Islamic clergy recommends to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to persuade Mr. bin Laden to leave Afghanistan whenever possible.”
To this, they added a conciliatory statement of condolence for the victims of the attacks in the United States. “The ulema,” they said, using an Arabic term for Islamic clergy, “voice their sadness over American deaths and hope America does not attack Afghanistan.”
This, too, was immediately followed by a harsh warning of retaliation. “If infidels invade an Islamic country and that country does not have the ability to defend itself, it becomes the binding obligation of all the world’s Muslims to declare a holy war,” the decree said. It also warned that any Muslim cooperation with the “infidels” — an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan, among other countries — was punishable by death.
Protests in major cities in Pakistan continued today against the decision by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, to agree to United States demands for cooperation in the hunt for Mr. bin Laden. Islamic militant groups linked to Mr. bin Laden and some political parties have promised to do everything possible to disrupt any American military venture involving Pakistan. A general strike is planned for Friday.
All week, reports from Kabul and Kandahar have indicated that the Taliban leaders were engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with the United States, with Mullah Omar saying Mr. bin Laden would never be handed over, then suggesting that he might be under certain conditions. The conditions changed from day to day. It appears clear that there are significant splits within the Taliban movement, although their exact nature is not easy to determine.
One new condition that appeared in the decree Thursday was that President Bush apologize to Muslims for using the word “crusade,” derived from the Christian military campaigns that overran Muslims 1,000 years ago, to describe his plans to fight international terrorism.
The United States has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Taliban over Mr. bin Laden. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking in Washington, said that “voluntarily, or involuntarily,” Mr. bin Laden had to be brought to justice. “The sooner he is brought to justice, the better off the world will be, and the better off the Afghan people will be,” he said.
The clerics’ decree came less than 12 hours after President Bush ordered heavy bombers and other forces deployed to bases within striking range of Afghanistan.
Islamic specialists and experts on Afghanistan had various interpretations of the latest developments. One was that Mullah Omar, and the wider clergy, wanted to try to rid themselves of responsibility for Mr. bin Laden without explicitly breaking previous assertions that Islamic injunctions would not permit them to endanger their “guest.”
Perhaps, too, these experts suggested, the Taliban thought that by allowing Mr. bin Laden to slip out of their control, they could escape the full weight of American wrath.
Other views were less complex: that the Taliban leaders were confused, considering that their own harsh form of Islamic rule has eliminated television in the parts of Afghanistan they control, and restricted the state-controlled radio and newspapers to “Islamic” news.
Most simply, some experts felt that Mullah Omar and the clerics were simply playing for time, hoping that a growing tide of reluctance to join in or endorse American military action across the Muslim world might yet get them out of a corner.
Officials in Pakistan, which sent a high-ranking military delegation to Kandahar and Kabul earlier in the week to tell Mullah Omar to surrender Mr. bin Laden or face being toppled from power, said they had left officers behind in case the Taliban had a change of heart.
The Pakistan generals who led the delegation said they hoped realists in the Taliban government in Kabul might prevail over unworldly clerics in Kandahar, where Mullah Omar and other members of the Taliban’s supreme council spent much of their time reading the Koran.
One senior government official in Kabul, Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, said after the clerics’ meeting that Mullah Omar would follow the “guidance” of the clerics and encourage Mr. bin Laden to leave, but implied that this would not be soon. “It will take time,” he said. “You know that Osama bin Laden has a lot of opponents. It can’t be that he goes out on the street and catches a taxi to go to another roundabout.”
In Islamabad, a Taliban official at the Afghan Embassy said Mr. bin Laden was ready to give himself up, if the United States provided evidence of his involvement in the attacks in the United States. “He said, `I am not involved in this terrorist action. I am a guest in Afghanistan. But if they have evidence, I am ready for a trial,’ ” Suhail Shaheen, the deputy ambassador said. “We are telling the Americans, if he has violated his commitment, please prove it.”
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company