Taliban split over Bin Laden

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TENSIONS ARE emerging among factions of the Taliban government in Afghanistan over the future of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire who has been given refuge by the hardline Islamic militia.

Senior Taliban officials have admitted for the first time that the presence in Afghanistan of Mr bin Laden, accused of masterminding the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is a problem.

Conservative elements of the government, those close to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, still say Mr bin Laden is a "guest" who will be defended to "the last drop of Afghan blood".

The difference of opinion in the senior ranks of the Taliban raises the prospect of Mr bin Laden being asked to leave the country.

Last week, Saudi Arabia withdrew its diplomatic representation in Kabul and ordered the Taliban charge d'affaires to leave Riyadh. The Taliban believe, probably correctly, this was linked to Mr bin Laden's continued presence in their country.

The Saudis believe that Mr bin Laden, who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994 after being expelled three years earlier for agitating against the regime, was behind the US embassy bombings last month, as well as attacks in Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries to have recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Earlier it provided massive financial support for the religious movement.

The Taliban believe that the Saudis are acting under pressure from the US. "They have been told to do it by the Americans," said Mullah Mohammed Haqsa, deputy interior minister.

Some senior Taliban, particularly those who recognise the need for the regime to improve its image overseas, are beginning to distance themselves from Mr bin Laden.

The Americans are keen to bring him to trial and it is thought Washington would offer diplomatic concessions in return for his extradition.

Maulvi Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi, an influential cleric backed by a number of Taliban ministers, described Mr bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan as "a problem inherited from earlier regimes".

And although few Taliban will admit it, they have been rattled by the Saudis' decision to pull out their diplomats. Saudi money has been crucial to the Taliban advance, allowing them to buy out opposition commanders. It is not clear if the Saudis have cut off, or plan to restrict, the funding.