Taliban vows revenge if attacked over bin Laden

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban vowed to wreak revenge if the country came under attack for harbouring the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who has been identified as the prime suspect in the terror attacks on America.

"We will take revenge if America attacks, through different means," the Taliban's chief spokesman, Abdul Hai Mutamaen, said in Kabul, without specifying the nature of the possible retaliation.

As Washington moved to secure international backing for military action if necessary against Mr bin Laden, who has been sheltered by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, the spokesman also warned Pakistan against giving any assistance to America in attacking Afghanistan or Mr bin laden.

According to some reports, President Pervez Musharraf has already agreed to allow US warplanes into its airspace after a request from Washington in response to Tuesday's suicide attacks on New York and Washington.

The Taliban spokesman said: "If Pakistan co-operates ... then it should wait for the enmity of Afghans which is more dangerous than any other thing."

The reclusive leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who lost an eye in the fighting several years ago, broke his silence about the attacks on America yesterday, but conspicuously failed to condemn them or even shed a few crocodile tears for the victims. He merely denied that Mr bin Laden, whom his regime shelters, could possibly have been involved. He said in a statement: "Osama has no pilots, and where did he train them? In Afghanistan there is no such possibility for the training."

He also said America was focusing on Mr bin Laden, who was a millionaire Saudi construction tycoon before turning terrorist, "without any proof, because he is so well known".

Another voice in the regime, however, spoke of willingness to hand over Mr bin Laden to Islamic justice if he was the guilty man. Asking America to give clear and substantial evidence of his involvement in the attacks, Radio Voice of Shari'ah said in a broadcast monitored in Peshawar: "We will hand him over to one of the Islamic courts of the world for trial. Afghanistan condemns the act and expresses its sympathy for the American people."

Meanwhile, Pakistani intelligence sources said that Mr bin Laden moved to a new hide-out "within minutes" of the terrorist attacks. The information is credible because Pakistan's military intelligence, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) was closely involved in the mustering of Mujahideen forces to resist the Soviet invasion of 1979, and is also deeply implicated in the creation of the Taliban, which sprung from primitive Islamic seminaries scattered throughout Pakistan.

Crowds of tattered Afghans pressed at the steel gates separating their devastated country from Pakistan yesterday, the men bearded and wearing off-white turbans, the women enveloped in burqas.

Lorries piled high with wooden crates full of Afghan grapes lurched through the throng while workers perched on top of the crates swatted would-be migrants with canes to stop them climbing aboard. The Pakistani border police lashed out with lathis, bamboo staves, if any desperate man or woman looked ready to squeeze through the narrow gap into the relative freedom and sanity of Pakistan.

Afghans have been trying to get out of their tragic homeland ever since the tanks of the Soviet Union's Red Army began rolling in, back in 1979. And millions, by hook or crook, have made it. Now Pakistan's terror is that an all-out American assault will force millions more to try to do the same thing.

As most of the few remaining foreigners in Afghanistan packed their bags yesterday, frightened Afghans also began leaving Kabul. "In a situation like this you feel that death is creeping up on you," said a baker as he prepared to leave the city with his family. "We don't know when the attacks will come."

Associated Press instructed its correspondents still in Kabul to leave the country. The United Nations has already completed a "temporary pullout" of its expatriate staff. Médecins sans Frontières, often found toughing it out even in the worst conditions, has withdrawn its team. The foreign diplomats on hand to advise the eight foreign aid workers on trial in Kabul for preaching Christianity are already back in Islamabad.

A large number of foreign journalists has descended on the Pakistani capital in anticipation of what may be to come, and most or all have applied for visas to Afghanistan. But the embassy stopped issuing visas on Tuesday.

* The Afghan guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood died yesterday from wounds suffered in a suicide bomb attack last Sunday, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said. Masood, the chief military obstacle to the Taliban's conquest of all of Afghanistan, had been hit by shrapnel from a bomb detonated by two Arabs posing as journalists.