After a week of debilitating strikes at targets across Afghanistan, the Taliban repeated an offer to hand over Osama bin Laden, only to be rejected by President Bush.
The offer yesterday from Haji Abdul Kabir, the Taliban's deputy prime minister, to surrender Mr bin Laden if America would halt its bombing and provide evidence against the Saudi-born dissident was not new but it suggested the Taliban are increasingly weary of the air strikes, which have crippled much of their military and communications assets.
The move came as the Taliban granted foreign journalists unprecedented access to the interior for the first time. Reporters were escorted to the village of Karam in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban said up to 200 civilians were killed in an American bombardment last Wednesday.
The reporters saw clear evidence that many civilians had been killed in the attack, though they could not confirm the number of deaths. "I ask America not to kill us," pleaded Hussain Khan, who said he had lost four children in the raid. In the rubble of one house, the remains of an arm stuck out from beneath a pile of bricks. A leg had been uncovered near by.
Another old man said: "We are poor people, don't hit us. We have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden. We are innocent people." Washington has not commented on the bombardment.
Mr Kabir said: "If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate." Mr bin Laden could be handed over to a third country for trial, he said. "We could discuss which third country."
But as American warplanes entered the second week of the bombing campaign, Washington rejected the Taliban offer out of hand. "When I said no negotiations I meant no negotiations," Mr Bush said. "We know he's guilty. Turn him over. There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt."
Earlier, in comments within a videotaped speech played at a meeting of the American Society of Anaesthesiologists, Mr Bush said his country was experiencing "one of the darkest moments in our history. Let me be clear about this. We will win the war on terrorism, and we will also continue to fight important battles at home."
One home-front battle is the growing unease in America about the outbreak of anthrax infections and the threat from bioterrorism. Another five employees of the Florida tabloid publishers – where one man died of the disease – were confirmed yesterday to have tested positive for exposure to the spores. Two states, New York and Florida, have now reported confirmed incidents of the disease and a third, Nevada, has reported discovery of anthrax spores in the post.
Several of Mr Bush's cabinet members tried to calm fears over anthrax when they appeared on television talk shows, but John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, said there was a chance the outbreaks were linked to Mr bin Laden. "We should consider this potential that it is linked [to Mr bin Laden]," he said. "It is premature at this time to decide whether there is a direct link."
Mr Ashcroft said some of those linked to the attacks on the US may still be at large within America. "I believe that it is very unlikely that all of those individuals associated with or involved with the terrorism events of 11 September and other terrorism events that may have been prepositioned and pre-planned have been apprehended," he said.
There were heightened fears of a biological attack in Britain yesterday when it was reported an unidentified man sprinkled white power in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
In Afghanistan, US planes again struck targets close to the Taliban's front line north of Kabul where they are fighting the Northern Alliance. In a turnaround that could suggest they are under pressure, the Taliban urged their enemies to join the war against America.
Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's foreign minister, said his forces were delaying an advance against Kabul until a political arrangement over how to rule Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was in place.
Anti-US protests claimed one life in Pakistan when police opened fire on demonstrators trying to storm the air base at Jacobabad, in southern Pakistan, one of two the government has lent to US forces.
In Nigeria, riots triggered by Muslim protests against the air strikes were reported to have claimed at least 200 lives in the town of Kano.
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