The Taliban revealed yesterday that an edict asking Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan had been hand-delivered to him, but Washington reiterated its demand that the handover of the world's most wanted man was "non-negotiable".
The Taliban Information Minister, Qudrutullah Jamal, said: "The edict had to be delivered by a messenger, who probably took some time to find him. We believe that by now he has found Osama and delivered the fatwa [edict] to him."
The minister confirmed that the Saudi-born dissident, who Washington says masterminded the devastating airliner bombings of 11 September, was still in Afghanistan.
But this concession – if concession it is – was greeted with derision by the Bush administration.
"I'm quite sure that whether they found him or not, he's gotten the message," General Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, said. "They [the Taliban] ought to comply with what the President put on the table last week."
Washington's uncompromising message is due to be rammed home to the Islamic fundamentalist regime today by two Pakistani delegations of officials and Islamic clerics which will travel to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. It will also be conveyed by the US civil rights leader the Rev Jesse Jackson if he accepts an invitation from the Taliban to undertake a mediation mission.
But for all the stern talk and the build-up of US military forces in the region, there was no signal yesterday in Washington that a visible military retaliation was imminent. Indeed the prospect if anything was receding, amid evidence of the colossal humanitarian disaster in and around Afghanistan, which massive US air strikes would only make worse.
With up to 7.5 million people out of a population of 25 million facing starvation, and more than 1 million refugees fleeing possible US retaliation, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, has launched an emergency $600m (£400m) appeal for aid to Afghanistan, which even before 11 September was in desperate straits after an unending civil war and the country's worst drought in 30 years.
The UN emergency relief co-ordinator Kenso Oshima told donors at a meeting in Berlin: "Afghanistan is the site of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Hunger and displacement in Afghanistan are worse than anywhere else in the world."
But despite the gathering disaster, and the belated indications that the Taliban's invitation to leave the country, now 10 days old, had been personally delivered to Mr bin Laden, the public stance of the Taliban remains unremittingly defiant. In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of the regime's seizure of power, its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, warned the Northern Alliance, their opponents, that anyone who accepted US help would meet the same fate as Afghans who had collaborated with the Russians.
In the event of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, "no difference will be made between America and Russia, and those Afghans who are brought in by the Americans will be treated like those brought in by the Communists," he said on the same day that in 1996 had seen the Taliban capture Kabul and hang the former Soviet-backed leader, Najibullah, from a lamp post.
It was not clear last night whether Mr Jackson would go ahead with his proposed mission, whose ostensible purpose is to secure the release of two American and other foreign aid workers held in Afghanistan on charges of promoting Christianity.
Washington, fearful of stalling tactics by the Islamic regime, would far rather he didn't go. Gen Powell said the decision was up to the civil rights leader. But "the Taliban regime knows what it should and must do with respect to bin Laden. He [Mr Jackson] is free to travel, but I don't know what purpose would be served right now."