Taliban leader will let a grand council decide whether to hand over Osama bin Laden

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 17 —

Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban leader will let a grand council of Islamic clerics decide whether to hand over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to the United States, the Taliban-run radio said Monday.

MULLAH MOHAMMED Omar’s announcement, read by a broadcaster on Radio Shariat, came after a day of meetings with a Pakistani delegation that included the head of the country’s secret service. The Pakistanis were in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar to press Omar to deliver bin Laden as a way of avoiding a U.S. retaliatory attack.

Bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi exile who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996, is the prime suspect in the last week’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Meantime, a Pakistani army official said that between 20,000 and 25,000 Afghan fighters have been deployed along with a large arsenal of weapons, including Russian-made Scud missiles, on the border with Pakistan.

Pakistan, too, is increasing its buildup. “We are also forming our forces, but there has been no firing,” Army Captain Abid Bahtti told Reuters from a military base in the Khyber Pass.

There was no independent confirmation of the Afghan buildup.

Even before getting the Afghan government’s response, Pakistan agreed to close its 1,560-mile border with Afghanistan and permit U.S. military overflights, a senior American official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Islamic hard-liners, protested in Pakistan, however, burning U.S. flags and shouting their support for bin Laden.

Another predominantly Muslim country, Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, said Monday it would consider lending its military bases to U.S. forces for staging strikes.

“Uzbekistan is ready to discuss any form of cooperation in the struggle against international terrorism in our region, including the deployment of U.S. forces,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bakhodyr Umarov said.

Over the weekend, the Taliban warned that it would attack any nation that provided help to the United States against Afghanistan.

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), September 17, 2001

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