British reporter may face Taliban spy charges

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Yvonne Ridley, the British journalist detained by the Taliban, is under investigation for spying, Kabul radio announced last night. If charged, she would face a possible death penalty.

The development comes amid warnings that military strikes against targets in Afghanistan are likely within days. The prospect of a British citizen being sentenced to death would also add considerably to the pressure on Tony Blair to take decisive action.

Ms Ridley, a Sunday Express reporter, was arrested on Friday with two Afghan companions in the Dour Baba district in the east of the country. She was disguised in the traditional head-to-toe Muslim burqa and was carrying no documentation. Her camera was seized and she was taken to Jalalabad for investigation.

Last night a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We have seen these reports. We have no independent confirmation about them. We are in contact with the Taliban on this case."

The Taliban are already holding eight Western aid workers, including two Americans. Their trial, for promoting Christianity, is due to resume today. But a spying charge, particularly when applied to a bona fide journalist, recalls the case of Farzad Bazoft, the Observer writer who was arrested, tortured and executed by Iraq just before the Gulf War.

Meanwhile, a senior opposition leader in northern Afghanistan, in daily contact with Washington, predicted yesterday that the US will strike at Osama bin Laden's supply bases "in days rather than weeks".

The Pentagon and the Taliban both dismissed reports that a US special forces unit had been captured in western Afghanistan. The Pentagon said it gave "no credence" to the story, as officials insisted there are no US units in the country.

Several hundred people protested in Washington yesterday against US retaliation. But a new Newsweek poll showed 65 per cent support for military action, even if innocent civilians are killed, and, in his weekly radio address yesterday, President George Bush vowed "war will be waged wherever terrorists hide, run or plan".