Taliban concedes bin Laden may be involved

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Wednesday September 19, 01:05 AM Taliban concedes bin Laden may be involved By Michael Arkus and Jeff Franks WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has conceded for the first time that Osama bin Laden could have been involved in attacks on the United States, while in Washington President George W. Bush portrayed America as the "home front" in a war against terrorism.

"Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him," Information Minister Qudrutullah Jamal told Reuters in Islamabad by telephone from Kabul.

But he said bin Laden's involvement in the attacks by hijacked airliners that slammed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon must be proved before the Saudi-born exile could be handed over, and then only for trial in a third country.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that providing proof could be a problem because of the need to protect intelligence sources.

"To the extent you compromise a source or a method of gathering information, you have damaged yourself," he said. Rumsfeld also suggested that one or more nations provided support for the hijackers, but would not reveal more.

A week after the attacks, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the chances of finding any of the 5,422 people still missing in the rubble of the World Trade Centre were "very, very small."

Many Americans, led by Bush, who has vowed stern retaliation against any state harboring those responsible, observed a moment of silence at 8:48 a.m. (1248 GMT), exactly one week after the first of two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre.

In a speech in the White House Rose Garden, he kept up the nation-at-war theme he began last week by appealing for disaster-relief donations to bolster the "home front."

"Our compassion and generous citizens have led the first phase in the war on terrorism. They have sustained and strengthened the home front," Bush said.

In New York, local radio and television stations stopped regular programming to play the national anthem, the sound of tolling bells or somber music, marking the minute when the city's skyline and psyche were forever changed.

After a massive sell-off on Monday when markets opened for the first time since the attacks, U.S. stocks wobbled and finally fell again on Tuesday as investors worried that the already troubled economy could go into a tailspin.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 17.30 points, 0.19 percent to 8,903.40, its lowest close since December 1998. The NASDAQ Composite Index dropped 24.27 points, or 1.55 percent to 1,555.08, its lowest close since October 1998.

Caution persisted in world markets as many financiers worried that a U.S. campaign against global terror could hit buying power worldwide.

Executives from U.S. airlines, whose shares plummeted worst of all on Monday, met with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta on Tuesday in hopes of getting a $24 billion government bailout. The airlines were stung by a two-day shutdown of the national air system after the attacks and now are being hit by heavy airport security and a widespread fear of flying.

Mineta said the Bush administration hoped to have an airline bailout proposal ready by early next week.

U.S. investigators expanded to more than 190 the number of people they want to question in connection with the attacks and are investigating if any of the 75 now in custody may have planned other hijackings.

U.S. sources told Reuters that the United States is looking into possible links between one of the attack suspects and an Iraqi intelligence official with whom he met earlier this year in Europe. U.S. officials have named 19 men they say used knives and box cutters to hijack the four commercial airliners.

SOME WORLD LEADERS WARY OF MILITARY ACTION While Bush sought to build a strong international coalition for a possible attack on Afghanistan, which calls bin Laden a "guest," some world leaders who condemned the attacks sounded alarm bells at the prospect of American military strikes.

Washington's NATO allies have generally voiced full support for a war on terrorism, but German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also warned: "We need to react with a cool head."

Chinese state media quoted President Jiang Zemin as saying U.N. approval and "irrefutable evidence" were needed for China to back armed retaliation. China also said the United States should not harm innocent people and must respect international law.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East, said the United States must think twice before taking action that would kill civilians.

But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on Tuesday called for Europe's unequivocal support for the United States and Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said he stood with the United States in what he called "a very special war." To underscore his support, Cardoso became his nation's first president ever to visit the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.

In a visit to Washington on Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac promised to work in "complete solidarity" with the United States, but stopped short of calling the attacks "war."

Bangladesh, a major Muslim nation in the region, said the United States could use its airspace and other facilities if it decided to launch a military offensive.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was to address the nation on Wednesday as anxiety grew over expected U.S. attacks on neighboring Afghanistan.

A U.S. interagency team was expected to visit Pakistan this week to discuss specific ways in which Islamabad could help the U.S. anti-terrorism effort, U.S. officials said.

Reports in Pakistani papers said the Taliban could be ready for negotiations.

The Taliban might be prepared to hand over bin Laden, who is reported to have denied any hand in the attacks, under certain conditions, according to the reports in the Nation and Jang newspapers. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

The conditions included the trial of bin Laden in a neutral Islamic country, the lifting of U.N. sanctions against the Taliban, economic assistance and suspension of foreign aid and military supplies to the Afghan opposition, said the reports.

A senior Afghan cleric also said the Taliban would launch a "jihad" or holy war against the United States if it attacked militarily, although officials of the Islamic movement quickly said the final decision lay with a council of clerics due to convene this week.

UNCERTAINTY HAUNTS GOVERNMENTS Governments around the world tightened security at borders, airports and military bases.

The U.N. General Assembly delayed indefinitely its annual debate of world leaders set to begin next week because of the strain on New York security services from the attacks.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank canceled their annual meetings, which were due to be held at the end of September in Washington, because of security concerns.

The toll in the World Trade Centre attack stood at 5,422 missing, with 218 confirmed dead, after six days of rescue efforts at the smoking ruins of the 110-story twin towers. Of the dead, only 152 have been identified.

A further 188 people died at the Pentagon, and 45 were killed in the crash of the fourth plane in Pennsylvania. http://uk.news.yahoo.com/010919/80/c4hby.html

-- Jackson Brown (Jackson_Brown@deja.com), September 19, 2001

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