War nears as West seals case against Afghanistan

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Wednesday, October 3 6:16 AM SGT

War nears as West seals case against Afghanistan


War drew nearer Tuesday as the West sealed its case for destroying the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan and gave zero quarter to renewed pleas from Kabul to sit down and talk it out.

As a fourth US aircraft carrier battle group steamed toward southwest Asia, the United States and Britain served notice that the Kabul government was in the crosshairs for protecting Osama bin Laden, top suspect in terror attacks on the United States. There were fresh warnings that renewed terrorist attacks, including a strike on "symbols of American capitalism" in Italy, could be imminent and the exact whereabouts of bin Laden himself remained a mystery.

But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said it had seen, believed and was ready to act on evidence from the United States tying the Saudi-born dissident to the September 11 attacks on the United States that left around 5,700 people dead or missing. Russia also delivered another robust endorsement of the US-led campaign against terrorism with President Vladimir Putin saying Moscow "needs no proof" of bin Laden's guilt in the September 11 attacks.

And as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was dispatched to the Middle East to discuss the mounting global war on terrorism, top officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria also met on "to coordinate the Arab stand" in the campaign.

Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which is sheltering bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization issued a fresh and desperate appeal for negotiations to avert war. But that plea, which also included another refusal to hand over bin Laden, was flatly rejected by the White House with the response: "No discussions, no negotiations."

The United States, moving to bolster shaky support for its war on terrorism among many Arab states, also dramatically reengaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said creation of a Palestinian state had "always" been part of its plan.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, US President George W. Bush reiterated that the Taliban regime must immediately turn over bin Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda network he leads which is based in Afghanistan. "There is no timetable for the Taliban, just like there are no negotiations," Bush said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair went further. "Surrender the terrorists or surrender power, that is your choice," he said.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson said the United States had supplied "clear and compelling" proof that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington.

Robertson said in Brussels that the evidence would allow NATO to activate, for the first time in its 52-year history a clause in the founding charter -- Article Five -- which states that an attack from abroad on one member is considered an attack on all.

Washington welcomed both Blair's speech and NATO's response to the evidence it presented, but declined to offer any clues on what that evidence was and flatly rejected a request from the Taliban to be given some of it too.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said his government wanted to avert a war and pleaded for negotiations to defuse the crisis, hinting even that Kabul might be ready to discuss handing bin Laden over to a third country. "We are prepared for negotiations," Zaeef told reporters in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, adding that talks could include transfer of bin Laden to "some country."

The United States however quickly wrote off the Taliban request for talks and evidence. "The president could not have said it plainer ... no discussions, no negotiations," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. The Taliban must turn over bin Laden and other terrorists, destroy their camps, stop allowing terrorists to be based in Afghanistan and give the United States access to their camps if the regime wants to avoid military punishment, Fleischer said.

With international diplomatic activity at fever pitch, the Bush administration also abruptly reversed its hesitation to wade into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said creation of a Palestinian state had "always" been on the cards. "The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected," Bush said.

His spokesman went further: "The United States believes that the Palestinian people should live peacefully and securely in their own state." A top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Washington's initiative would encourage peace in the Middle East but a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned it could prove "counter-productive" in the longer run.

Rumsfeld meanwhile said he would go to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and the central Asian state of Uzbekistan. A Pentagon spokeswoman said he would depart Tuesday and would be holding "significant consultations" with top officials on the war against terrorism. Making the trip now "struck me as a good idea," Rumsfeld told reporters.

In other developments:

- the US State Department said it had received information indicating that "symbols of American capitalism" in Italy could be targeted for attack by terrorists in the next 30 days;

- The UN Security Council said a special committee set up to ensure that the 189 UN members comply with binding demands in the fight against terrorism would be in place by this weekend;

- Germany announced it had frozen a total of 214 bank accounts as part of its efforts to crack down on financial support for terrorism;

- the US Federal Reserve slashed the benchmark federal funds rate by half a percentage point to 2.50 percent, its lowest level since 1962;

- French judicial officials said an Islamic militan extradited to France has given what he said are details of a planned attack ordered by bin Laden's organization on the US embassy in Paris;

- The head of the Russian Orthodox Church said he feared a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and said the war on terrorism must not be regarded as a "global face-off between Christians and Muslims."

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 03, 2001

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