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Taliban Locates Terrorist Leader, Asks Him to Depart Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
THE WASHINGTON POST -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia has located Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and delivered a message from a council of Islamic clerics asking him to leave the country, according to the Taliban’s top diplomat here.

The Bush administration has demanded that the Taliban, which has harbored bin Laden for five years, surrender the wealthy Islamic extremist. But Taliban leaders have so far refused, insisting bin Laden was under their control and could not have orchestrated any international terrorist act.

Last week, a council of Afghan clerics decided to ask bin Laden to leave Afghanistan, but only of his free will and at a time of his choosing. Soon after, Taliban officials said he’d vanished and that they didn’t know where he was.

On Thursday, however, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, said, “Osama has now received the ... recommendations,” according to the Taliban news agency. “We have not lost Osama, but he is out of sight of the people.”

The Taliban’s conciliatory moves appeared to be eleventh-hour efforts to forestall any foreign military attack. A spokesman for a major Pakistani Islamic group said the delegation being dispatched to Afghanistan would try to persuade the Taliban to hold talks with the United States in an effort to resolve “all disputes,” especially over bin Laden.

Officials in Washington have said repeatedly that it’s too late for any negotiation concerning bin Laden and that the Taliban would face a U.S. assault if they don’t turn him over. Taliban officials have demanded that the United States provide them with solid evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in terrorism, but Washington hasn’t done so.

The U.S. position was reluctantly echoed here Thursday by U.N. officials. Francesc Vendrell, the U.N. political envoy for Afghanistan, said, “I’m afraid when it comes to Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, the time for negotiations on these issues is past.” Al Qaeda is the terrorist network affiliated with bin Laden.

Despite the new gestures by the Taliban, its supreme religious leader, the usually reclusive Mohammed Omar, publicly threatened Thursday that any Afghan who collaborated with a U.S. intervention in Afghanistan would be “treated like those who were brought in by the communists.”

On this day in 1996, Taliban fighters swept into Kabul and rounded up officials who’d backed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. They dragged the Soviet-installed former president, Najibullah, behind a truck and hung his mutilated corpse from a traffic post.

“Those Afghans who want to take over power in Afghanistan with the help of American troops are the same as those Afghans who came into Afghanistan with the help of the Russian troops,” Omar was quoted as saying. “In case of intervention in Afghanistan, no difference will be made between America and Russia.”

The government of Pakistan, which has expressed concern over the possibility of a violent spillover from the mounting crisis in Afghanistan, is supporting the planned visit by Pakistani Islamic leaders to talk with Taliban officials.

At the same time, Pakistani police were reported to be hunting down and arresting supporters of bin Laden, especially in the port city of Karachi. Police there said they had picked up an undisclosed number of suspected bin Laden associates “for intensive investigation and interrogation.”