U.S. bombs Afghanistan as Bush spurns Taliban offer
By Alan Elsner and Sayed Salahuddin
Monday October 15, 7:38 AM
WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) - President George W. Bush rejected a new offer from the Taliban to hand Osama bin Laden to a neutral country as U.S. planes slammed Afghanistan on Sunday and an anthrax scare continued, with more people in Florida and New York reported exposed to the bioterrorism agent.
In one of several signs Taliban forces were feeling the pressure, a senior official from the militant Islamic movement offered to give up bin Laden to a neutral country if the United States provided sufficient evidence linking the Saudi-born militant to the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks on New York and Washington.
"It can be negotiated provided the U.S. gives us evidence and the Taliban are assured that the country is neutral and will not be influenced by the United States," Maulvi Abdul Kabir, No. 2 to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, told a news conference in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Bush wasted little time in spurning the offer. "When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations," Bush told reporters as he returned to the White House from his Camp David retreat. "We know he's guilty. Turn him over."
The United States believes bin Laden masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks that flattened the 110-story twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and killed nearly 5,400 people. Bush has declared that the Taliban, which shelters bin Laden in Afghanistan, will share his fate.
On the eighth night of the U.S.-led bombing campaign, at least four planes flew over the Afghan capital, Kabul, and dropped bombs close to the ruling Taliban's front line, facing the opposition Northern Alliance, a witness said.
"I saw a flash in the north part of the city," the witness said. "There were at least three bombs, and two were in the northern suburbs near the front line."
Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said his forces were delaying an advance against Kabul until a political agreement could be reached on how to rule Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
With the United States on high alert for further attacks, five more employees of a Florida supermarket tabloid publisher tested positive for anthrax exposure. One worker has died of the disease. In addition, three more people tested positive for exposure to anthrax bacteria in New York, where a letter containing the bacteria was sent to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.
The new cases in Boca Raton brought to eight the number of workers at American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, Globe and other sex-and-scandal supermarket tabloids, to have been exposed to the deadly disease.
In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said five people were now known to have been exposed to anthrax -- two employees at NBC, plus a police detective and two health workers who came into contact with the letter to Brokaw. Giuliani said the policeman and the lab technicians were found to have spores in their nose or skin, "but this does not mean they have anthrax."
The two employees at NBC showed symptoms of skin anthrax exposure after coming into contact with the envelope containing a granular substance. The cases, along with suspicious envelopes sent to other companies, including The New York Times and a Microsoft subsidiary in Reno, Nevada, have raised fears of a biological attack linked to the Sept. 11 attacks on America.
Officials in Reno said four of the six people exposed to anthrax in a letter sent from Malaysia had tested negative and tests had not been completed on the other two.
NO LINK KNOWN TO BIN LADEN
Tommy Thompson, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said it was too early to blame bin Laden's al Qaeda network for the anthrax-contaminated mail. "There's no question it's bioterrorism," Thompson said. "It's a biological agent. It's terrorism, it's a crime. ... But whether or not it's connected to al Qaeda, we can't say conclusively."
Fears of germ warfare spread to Brazil on Sunday after a ground cleaning crew found a white powder aboard a flight from Frankfurt to Rio de Janeiro. Health officials were conducting tests to determine if the substance discovered on the Lufthansa plane was dangerous, a spokesman said.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said some of the people responsible for the Sept. 11 assaults were probably still in the United States planning other missions. "We are doing everything possible to disrupt, interrupt, prevent, to destabilize any additional activity," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "We are on alert."
A TALIBAN MOVE
Meanwhile, in another possible sign the U.S. raids were sapping Taliban strength, the Taliban intelligence chief said on Sunday that his radical Islamic movement wanted opposition commanders to join it to fight the U.S.-led attacks on the country.
Qari Ahmadullah was quoted by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press as saying that Omar, the Taliban leader, had issued orders not to seize weapons from opposition fighters who joined hands with the Taliban.
The Taliban control more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, the rest of which is held by the Northern Alliance.
The call to arms by the Taliban and al Qaeda has been largely rejected in the Muslim world, but anti-U.S. protests continued in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In the southern city of Jacobabad, one person was killed and 12 injured on Sunday when police fired in the air and used tear gas against stone-throwing demonstrators protesting against the presence of U.S. forces at the local airport, witnesses said.
Al Qaeda warned the United States and Britain to end the airstrikes and get out of the Gulf or suffer more violent attacks and a "storm of hijacked planes."
In Kabul, sporadic anti-aircraft fire erupted in the morning as a single plane screamed above the city. The fire from the ground was weak, indicating that the city's anti-aircraft defenses might have suffered severe damage.
Jets bombed military targets and the airport in southern Kandahar, the old royal capital and a Taliban redoubt, causing a fire, AIP reported. Herat airport in western Afghanistan was also pounded in five raids from 3 a.m. (6 p.m. EDT/2230 GMT on Saturday), it said.
In Jalalabad in the east, U.S. warplanes bombed a military base, witnesses and news agencies said.
The first strikes hit an army installation and wounded at least six people, the AIP said. Two more bombs exploded on the outskirts, believed to be dotted with guerrilla camps.
The Taliban estimate that more than 300 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since air raids began on October 7, and on Saturday the Pentagon acknowledged that a 2,000-pound (900-kg) bomb had hit a house in Kabul after missing its target at the airport. At least one person died and four were wounded by the bomb.
In the eastern village of Khorum, Taliban officials said as many as 200 people might have been killed when a collection of mud huts and livestock pens were flattened in an air raid on Wednesday.
Taliban officials say 160 bodies had already been pulled from the rubble. Villagers from neighboring hamlets were looking for more when reporters accompanied by the Taliban toured the area.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Islamabad on Monday to discuss the bombing of Afghanistan with military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, knowing many Pakistanis violently oppose U.S. policy.
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