Bush delivers ultimatum
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday delivered an ultimatum to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban: hand over terrorists "or share in their fate".
Bush told Congress that the Taliban was not only repressing its own people, but also "threatening people everywhere by sponsoring sheltering and supplying terrorists".
"By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is commiting murder and tonight the United States of America makes the following demands," Bush said.
"Deliver to U.S. authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda [terrorist organization] that hide in your land.
"Release all foreign nationals including American citizens you have unjustly imprisoned.
"Protect all journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country.
"Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure to appropriate authorities.
"Give the US full access to terrorist training camps so we make sure they are no longer operating."
Bush added the demands were not open to negotiation or discussion.
In the strongest comments yet from the U.S. administration since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Bush identified that the Al Qaeda terrorist group and its leader Osama bin Laden were not the only organizations the U.S. would target in its campaign against terror.
"Al Qaeda is to terror what the mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money, its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical belief on people everywhere."
He said the group is linked to many other organizations in other countries such as Egypt and Uzbekistan.
His speech comes after the White House rejected Thursday a recommendation by Muslim clerics that Afghanistan's Taliban leadership should ask suspected terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden to leave the country.
The Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is said to be considering the recommendation.
Observers inside Afghanistan said that Washington's reaction will likely determine whether Omar accepts the recommendation.
If Washington had indicated some willingness to accept the idea, Omar would accept it, the observers said.
Otherwise, they said, Omar would likely reject the recommendation.
"We are now at a possible turning point," said a senior Taliban official.
Clerics express grief over attacks
The council -- made up of around 600 Muslim clerics -- also expressed grief over last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and urged the U.S. to be patient in its investigations.
They said the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Conference should investigate the September 11 attacks.
"The ulema [clerics] of Afghanistan voice their sadness over deaths in America and hope that America does not attack Afghanistan, exerts complete patience and accuracy and investigates the issue in its totality," the Council's statement said, Reuters news agency reported.
However, the Council warned that if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, the Taliban would call a jihad or "holy war" against the U.S. and its allies.
The fatwa, or religious edict, would still need to be approved by Mullah Omar who has the last word and can go against the council's recommendations.
The U.S. has labeled bin Laden a prime suspect in last week's attacks and has vowed to hunt him down.
The millionaire Saudi-born dissident has been living in Afghanistan for several years as a "guest" of the Taliban.
Bin Laden himself has already denied he had anything to do with the attacks and the Taliban has repeatedly said he could not have been involved in the attacks.
The meeting of the Grand Islamic Council in Kabul came in the wake of a visit to the country by Pakistani envoys who warned the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face the threat of military strikes by the U.S.
Pentagon sources have already told CNN that warplanes are being sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the initial buildup of forces in America's "new war" against terrorism.
Dozens of military planes will be "forward deployed" as early as Thursday, with a second order putting the number of planes at more than 100.
The Grand Islamic Council is effectively the lawmaking body of the Taliban government which meets to debate matters of national, political or spiritual importance.
Its recommendations, including asking bin Laden to leave within a suitable timeframe, differed somewhat from the firm stance the Taliban has taken to date.
But some analysts argue the fatwa is nothing but a stalling mechanism.
"The main point is they are stalling and they'll go on stalling. I don't see that reality has yet got through," Fred Halliday from the London School of Economics told CNN.
"They haven't got the message and I doubt that they are going to."
Meanwhile, the opposition Northern Alliance told CNN that the supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar has gone into hiding.
The alliance said it had intercepted radio traffic indicating Omar feared a U.S. attack and was now communicating with his leadership only once a day by radio.
The opposition group said it had turned over the information it had gathered to the United States.
The Northern Alliance has been engaged in a long running civil war with the Taliban and controls about 5 percent of the country, in Afghanistan's north.
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