U.S. rejects Taliban offer to try bin Laden
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House on Sunday rejected an offer from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to try suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan under Islamic law.
The offer came as the United States massed forces in southwest Asia for a possible strike against Afghanistan if the Taliban refuse to surrender bin Laden. A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the Taliban offer and repeated U.S. demands that bin Laden be turned over unconditionally.
The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, made the offer at a news conference in Islamabad. Zaeef said the Taliban would detain bin Laden and try him under Islamic law if the United States makes a formal request and presents them with evidence.
The United States blames bin Laden for the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
"America has given evidence to other countries, we do not say anything," Zaeef said. "If Americans are convinced that they have solid evidence, we are ready for his trial in Afghanistan, and they have to produce that evidence."
Sunday, President Bush returned to the White House after a weekend at Camp David and remarks at a memorial for the firefighters killed in the line of duty last year and in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Bush ignored questions about the Taliban's latest offer. But in his weekly radio address Saturday, he warned the Taliban that they had little time left to meet U.S. demands.
"The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations," the president said. "Full warning has been given, and time is running out."
Bush's demands include turning over not only bin Laden, but all members of his al Qaeda network. The United States has also urged Afghanistan to close all terrorist training camps, give the U.S. access to those camps and release eight Western aid workers accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
"The president made clear his demands," said an administration official, who asked not to be identified. "Those demands are not subject to negotiation and it is time for the Taliban to act now."
Bush has said he would set no timetable for military action and that the United States will act at a time of its own choosing. Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told CNN on Saturday that a coalition was in place to begin military action.
"We've got many countries who have actively sought us in order to engage in military activities with us. We've got overflight rights from over 26 countries, and we've got basing agreements with about 21 countries right now," Armitage said. "When our president makes up his mind to go forward, I think we're fully ready."
U.S. officials have tried to emphasize that any military action will be aimed at the Taliban rather than the Afghan people. The administration has tried to reach out to Afghan opposition leaders and announced plans Thursday to donate $320 million in humanitarian aid to the country, which has been battered by two decades of war and a widespread drought.
"Despite efforts by the Taliban to disrupt these critical aid shipments, we will deliver food and seeds, vaccines and medicines by truck, and even by draft animals," Bush said. "Conditions permitting, we will bring help directly to the people of Afghanistan by air drops."
The administration Saturday also rejected an offer by the ruling Taliban to release Western aid workers on trial in Afghanistan if the United States withdraws its threat of military strikes against Afghanistan.
The aid workers, including two Americans, are accused of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity -- a serious offense under the Taliban's severe Islamic code. Saturday's statement is the first time the Taliban have linked the aid workers to the demand that they give up bin Laden.
"If the United States is ready to ensure the Afghan people that their action is not against the Afghan people, the Taliban are ready to release the eight aid workers," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told CNN in a written statement. He warned of a possible humanitarian catastrophe if Afghans continue to flee in fear of U.S. action.
But a Bush administration official said Saturday the aid workers should be released unconditionally.
"This is not a negotiation," said the administration official, stressing that it is time for the Taliban to "act to meet all of the president's demands now."
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