Blair: We will eliminate Taliban forces for refusing to hand over bin Laden

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will warn Afghanistan's Taliban rulers today that they will soon pay a heavy price for failing to bow to the ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden.

In his clearest signal since last month's terrorist attacks that the United States and Britain are about to launch military strikes in Afghanistan, Mr Blair will tell Labour's annual conference in Brighton: "They [the Taliban] had the chance to surrender the terrorists. They chose not to. We will eliminate their hardware, disrupt their supplies, target their troops." The Prime Minister's tough words suggest that he believes the ultimatum has now expired and that the Taliban have no intention of handing over Mr bin Laden.

Mr Blair will acknowledge that people in Britain feel "anxious" about the looming military action, but he will insist: "The dangers of inaction are greater than the dangers of action." He will promise that any action will be "proportionate, and targeted at the military installations and training camps of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban troops, supplies and finances ... We will do what we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties".

The belief that an assault could be imminent grew yesterday when General Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, which is the Taliban's only remaining ally in the international community, said he believed the Taliban's days were numbered. The President said conflict was inevitable after the Taliban's defiant announcement on Sunday that they are hiding Osama bin Laden and will not hand him over. "Because of the stand the Taliban have taken ... confrontation will take place," President Musharraf said.

Pressure on the Taliban regime mounted further when the US confirmed that President George Bush has ordered financial support for opposition groups within Afghanistan. The main opposition grouping, the Northern Alliance, shored up its strength by reaching a strategic agreement with the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, 86, who lives in exile in Rome. Abdullah Abdullah, the so-called foreign minister for the Alliance, predicted an American attack would come "in a matter of days".

The Taliban Defence Minister urged his soldiers to resist any attack. "Fight hard against attacks, defend your country," Mullah Obaidullah said while visiting troops on the border with Pakistan.

The first United Nations aid trucks, carrying wheat for bread, were reported to have reached the Afghan capital Kabul yesterday. And in an attempt to allay fears inside the Labour Party, Mr Blair will pledge that the humanitarian response will be "every bit as well-planned and thorough as the military response".

Mr Blair will argue that the best memorial to the victims of last month's atrocities would be for "lasting good emerging from the shadow of evil". He will say the attacks had shown the interdependence of the world, which must now be turned into a force for good.

The Prime Minister wrote the first draft of the speech himself, breaking with his normal practice of seeking drafts from advisers. He decided the central theme should be "the power of community" to be a force for good both at home and abroad.

In a coded criticism of Mr Bush, who had pursued an isolationist foreign policy before the attacks, Mr Blair will say this power should be harnessed to tackle climate change and restart the Middle East peace process. "In all these issues, our national self-interest is inextricably linked with mutual interest," he will say.

About half the speech will be devoted to domestic policy because Mr Blair has told Cabinet colleagues he does not want to "take his eye off the ball" in Britain during the international crisis. He will address the issue of the European single currency and emphasise the scale and importance of his plans to reform public services.