US team in Pakistan for key meetings

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Faced with US demands to hand over Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan's Taliban leadership claimed it has been unable to find the alleged terrorist mastermind and advise him of a recommendation to leave the country voluntarily.

American officials dismissed the claim, which came as a U.S. Defense Department team arrived in Pakistan to discuss military cooperation for a strike against bin Laden and his Taliban allies.

Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the militia's chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had sent emissaries to inform bin Laden of a decision Thursday by the country's Muslim clergy that he should leave the country voluntarily at a time of his choosing. Zaeef said Taliban authorities had been searching for bin Laden for the past two days "but he has not been traced."

In Washington, top U.S. officials dismissed the claim and suggested it was a crude attempt to evade responsibility for complying with U.S. demands.

"We're not going to be deterred by comments that he may be missing," said Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser.

"We don't simply believe it," she said on the "Fox News Sunday" TV program.

Taliban must either hand over bin Laden and his lieutenants, and allow access to their alleged terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, or "face the wrath of an international coalition," Rice said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also scoffed at the hard–line Islamic militia.

Asked on CBS' "Face the Nation" if he believed the Taliban claim, Rumsfeld replied: "Of course not."

"They know where he is," he said. "They know their country. ... it is just not believable that the Taliban do not know where the network can be located and found and can be turned over."

However, in Pakistan, the director of a think–tank in Islamabad was less skeptical.

"Maybe he's not on Afghanistan soil," said Shireen Mazari of the Institute of Strategic Studies. "He might have fled. If that's the case, what happens to the objective of the (U.S.) military?"

Bin Laden is the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which left thousands of people dead or missing.

In reporting the claim, the Afghan Islamic Press, a private news agency based in Islamabad, quoted Omar's spokesman Abdul Hayee as saying "guest Osama" had "gone missing" and that "efforts were being made to locate him."

Quoting Hayee, the agency said that once bin Laden was found, he would be told of the clerical decision. "Then it would be his decision whether he wants to stay in Afghanistan or not," Hayee was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, the United States accelerated preparations for military action against bin Laden and the Taliban, which have given him refuge since 1996. A high–level U.S. Defense Department team led by Air Force Brig. Gen. Kevin Chilton, Pentagon director of strategic planning for the Near East and South Asia, arrived Sunday in Islamabad, U.S. and Pakistani sources said.

The team is expected to finalize plans for the United States to use Pakistani airspace, intelligence–sharing and military facilities in support for action against Afghanistan.

Despite anti–American sentiment in this Muslim country, Pakistan agreed last week to cooperate fully with Washington in its campaign against terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the three countries that formally recognized the Taliban government – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have all distanced themselves. The UAE broke diplomatic relations with the Taliban on Saturday, and the Saudis was said to be discussing breaking with the Kabul government.

As part of an international campaign to bolster the anti–terrorism coalition, a high–level European Union delegation is to arrive Monday in Islamabad at the start of a weeklong diplomatic tour through Islamic countries.

The delegation, which also will stop in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, will be led by Foreign Minister Louis Michel of Belgium, which holds the EU presidency. The delegation also includes EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique.

Pakistan's hardline Islamic parties remain strongly opposed to their government's support for the U.S.–led campaign. On Sunday, small and peaceful demonstrations were held in the cities of Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta. Protesters burned effigies of President Bush and threatened to join a "jihad," or holy war, against America if its forces attack Taliban and bin Laden.

In Quetta, Mullah Ghafoor Haideri, the national general–secretary of the right–wing Jamiat–e–Ulema Islami party, threatened to direct suicide forces against U.S. servicemen if any are deployed in Pakistan.

"We are directing our suicide force to guard those airways and areas that American forces wish to use against Afghanistan," he said at a news conference. "If American airplanes land at our air base, suicide fighters will attack them."