ANALYSIS-Taleban stand firm on protecting Osama bin Laden
By Jack Redden
ISLAMABAD, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden remains safe in his Afghan sanctuary, with the ruling Taleban movement showing no sign of bowing to mounting international pressure to turn over the Saudi militant for trial.
New sanctions against the group last month produced charges that the United Nations is punishing a population already suffering from war and facing imminent famine, but no change in the Taleban position that Washington has not given proof that bin Laden blew up two U.S. embassies in 1998.
"We have not given shelter to Osama bin Laden so we can make a deal in order to hand him over," the Taleban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said this week. "Our policy is clear from the beginning and this policy still prevails."
He was merely restating the Taleban's long-standing position: Washington must provide proof for a court trial in Afghanistan or in some Muslim country before a religious committee including representatives of Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia.
"Washington's inflexible demand for his extradition and mass media reports have made him larger than life," said Zaeef. "What Osama is today is not because of his political activities but because of the U.S. extremist stand and media reports against him."
The reality of bin Laden's activities remains as obscure as everything else about the son of the multi-millionaire Saudi businessman who first started funding militant Islamic fighters during the U.S.-backed war to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
His location in Afghanistan is a secret, he is thought to change residence continually and the rare statements attributed to him cannot be verified. His days of meeting Western reporters ended before the bombing of the U.S. embassies.
The anti-Taleban forces now confined to northern Afghanistan said he moved in November in a night-time convoy from Kandahar, home of Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, to an impregnable mountain area.
But television tapes that emerged from Afghanistan at the end of the year -- a rare event for a fugitive living in a country where television is banned as un-Islamic -- showed him at his son's wedding in Kandahar.
His secretive ways are understandable: Washington has offered a $5 million reward for his capture. George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said this week the tall, thin Saudi was the most immediate and serious threat to U.S. security.
Apart from the embassy bombings, U.S. officials link bin Laden to last year's bombing of a U.S. navy ship in Yemen and with foiled plots in the United States and Jordan at the turn of the millennium.
"Since 1998 bin Laden has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack," Tenet said.
He said bin Laden was using the internet "to acquire information and capabilities to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear attack."
The Taleban are dismissive of U.S. claims, saying bin Laden is not allowed to engage in any political activities from Afghanistan. They say the Saudi dissident, living in a country with the most primitive of infrastructure, could never direct the worldwide net of agents suggested by Washington.
But U.S. pressure may be having an impact on neighbouring Pakistan, which has joined only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recognising the Taleban as the legal government of Afghanistan.
Pakistan, despite its denials, is seen in the region as the creator of the Taleban, which captured the capital only two years after emerging from religious schools on the Pakistan side of the border with religious fervour but little military expertise.
"I told the Taleban that you should concentrate on how you can remove concerns or apprehensions of the world about you," Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said on Thursday after two days of talks in Afghanistan.
If Pakistan is feeling uneasy at the international stand-off over the Taleban's Saudi "guest," many Afghans inside their destitute country also question why they should draw additional hardships by hosting foreign Islamic militants like bin Laden and others.
So far the Taleban appear to have concluded they have little to gain from surrendering bin Laden. A report they would be willing to trade him for official recognition by the United States was quickly dismissed this week by its foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.
Muttawakil, noting the sanctions resolution made a wide-range of charges against the Taleban, said handing over bin Laden would only trigger a different demand. He was clear: there was no change in Taleban policy.
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