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U.S. awaits Taliban decision on bin Laden

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Leading Islamic clerics within Afghanistan's ruling Taliban are traveling to Kabul for a special meeting to decide whether to extradite alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The millionaire Saudi dissident, who has been living in Afghanistan for several years as a "guest" of the Taliban, has been named by the United States as its prime suspect in terror attacks on New York and Washington.

Taliban foreign ministry officials in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar have told CNN that senior clerics are traveling from across the country for the meeting, which could take two to three days once convened.

The meeting of about 600 delegates originally had been expected to begin Tuesday but has been postponed as many clerics had not yet arrived by early afternoon, Taliban officials said. Officials said the meeting will get under way as soon as possible.

Afghans are bracing themselves for an attack from the United States but still show loyalty to the ruling Taliban. CNN's Nic Robertson reports (September 17)

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The clerics are effectively the lawmakers of the Taliban government who meet to debate matters of national, political or spiritual importance.

They are an advisory body to the supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and advise him on what they see as the right course of action.

They are expected to discuss the issue of bin Laden, what to do if the United States attacks Afghanistan and whether to call a jihad or "Holy war" against the United States.

Omar is effectively compelled to sign off on what the clerics say although he can make an independent decision. However, such a course of action would threaten to bring questions regarding his leadership.

Surrender unlikely

The Taliban already have said that bin Laden was not responsible for the attacks and have resisted calls to hand him over.

Sources tell CNN there is no indication that the Taliban will change their decision despite a delegation of Pakistani envoys warning them Monday that if they did not turn bin Laden over they risked attack by U.S. forces.

"Time is short, and you (the Taliban) should solve this problem," Aziz Khan of the Pakistani foreign ministry told Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel.

The Pakistani delegation is headed by Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, chief of Pakistan's intelligence services

As well as meeting with the Taliban foreign minister, the Pakistani envoys also held talks at an undisclosed location with Omar.

He was told by the envoys that all indications were that the origin of attacks on the United States came from Afghanistan, and they warned that Pakistan was intent on obeying international law on matters of terrorism.

The Pakistani delegation was meeting for a second day with senior members of the Taliban leadership.

Border tension

Pakistan already has pledged wide-ranging support to the U.S. war on terrorism, including allowing the United States to use its airspace.

This stance comes despite a warning from the Taliban that they will attack any country that offers assistance to a U.S. attack on Afghanistan.

Pakistan is one of only three countries to have diplomatic ties with the Taliban and was a key supporter of the hard-line Islamic movement as its forces took control of most of the country in the mid-1990s.

On Monday, Pakistani military officials reported "unusual movements" of troops inside Afghanistan.

CNN's Tom Mintier, who is in Pakistan, said the situation along the border between the two countries is extremely tense with truckloads of Pakistani soldiers traveling along the roads leading to the frontier.

Pakistan already has closed the 1,400-kilometer-long (800-mile-long) border in compliance with a U.S. request.

Bin Laden denial

Bin Laden has been identified by U.S. authorities as the "prime suspect" in last week's attacks in Washington and New York and is also thought to be linked to previous acts of terrorism.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has pledged his country's cooperation with the United States.  

Speaking to reporters Monday, U.S. President Bush indicated America wanted the exiled Saudi dissident "dead or alive."

Last week, the Taliban government said that if the United States had evidence bin Laden was involved, it should turn over that evidence so the matter could be handled by Afghanistan's judicial system.

The Taliban also said bin Laden could not have been involved in the terror attacks because there is no flight training school in Afghanistan and because the Taliban have cut off bin Laden's communications with the rest of the world.

In a statement issued Sunday, bin Laden denied he was behind the attacks.

"The U.S. government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it," according to the statement, read on Al Jazeera, the Arabic television news channel.

"I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons," bin Laden's statement read.

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