Taliban's leader says US attack 'less likely'

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The Independent Online

The Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, yesterday told his people not to leave the country, saying he now thought it was less likely that the United States would attack because Washington had no proof that Osama bin Laden was involved in the 11 September attacks on America.

"There is less of a possibility of an American attack," he said in a message distributed by the Afghan Information Ministry. "America has no reason, justification or evidence for attacking. Therefore all those [Afghans] who have been displaced internally or externally are instructed to return to their original place of residence."

His message came only hours after thousands of Afghans stormed the grounds of the abandoned US embassy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, yesterday, smashing the windows with stones and axes and setting the building on fire.

The storming of the embassy – which has been closed since 1989 – was the first large-scale demonstration of anti-American feeling in Kabul since 11 September. Observers in Pakistan were in no doubt that the attack on the embassy was ordered and directed by the Taliban. Nonetheless, the demonstrators showed every sign of getting into the spirit of the thing, and once they had broken into the embassy compound there was pandemonium.

A small group of Taliban soldiers armed with rifles waved the demonstrators back, but the protesters were having none of it, wielding axes, hurling rocks and tearing up cables. The demonstrators had begun by marching through the city streets, ripping up the Stars and Stripes, burning an effigy of President Bush, and protesting at US demands that the Taliban hand over Mr bin Laden – the Saudi militant sheltering in Afghanistan who the US believes orchestrated the attacks on New York and Washington.

As they approached the embassy compound, two Taliban fighters dressed in black clambered above the entrance gates and used a hammer and crowbar to rip off the metal US government seal fastened between the entrance pillars. As young boys shrieked with excitement, demonstrators attacked the windows of the main building with axes. Black smoke was soon billowing into the sky. Cars parked in the compound were torched. "Long live Islam!" the demonstrators screamed. "Death to America!"

"The demonstrators were certainly orchestrated by the Taliban," said one analyst in Islamabad, "but it looks like it got out of control. They wanted something to happen, but not quite on this scale."

No one can judge how much support the Taliban have in Afghanistan. Many have been antagonised by years of arbitrary, killjoy restrictions on their everyday lives that add to the misery of living in the fifth-poorest country in the world.

But in view of the expected American attack, it is reasonable to suppose that at least part of the population is rallying to Afghanistan's defence.

In Saudi Arabia yesterday, Afghan nationals were reported to be reclaiming their passports, declaring that they were going home to fight "for Afghanistan and for Islam". Close to the Afghan border in Pakistan, where the population is predominantly Pathan – the ethnic group to which the core of the Taliban belong – noisy demonstrations have been mounted in solidarity with the Taliban. Pakistan fears that if Afghanistan were to be attacked, and especially if that attack were launched from Pakistan, the Pathans' reaction could spin out of control. It could even revive the spectre of "Pakhtunistan", the demand that Pathans on Pakistan's western border had once made for an independent state.

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