Pakistan to pressure Taliban to hand over bin Laden
By David Fox
Monday September 17, 1:32 AM
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is to send a team of officials to Afghanistan on Monday to press the ruling Taliban into handing over Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden and help prevent a potential catastrophe in the region.
Newspaper editors briefed by President Pervez Musharraf on said he appeared determined to "do the right thing" in response to Washington's appeal for a global alliance to fight world terror -- even if it meant alienating his own people.
"A delegation will be going to Afghanistan, maybe on Monday," Major-General Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistan's military government, told Reuters.
The mission coincides with an urgent war council of Islamic clerics called in Kabul by the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who so far has refused to consider giving up bin Laden, the chief suspect in last Tuesday's devastating attacks on New York and Washington.
"The Pakistan government is leaning on the Taliban government to hand over Osama to save this entire region from catastrophe," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times, who attended the briefing.
"I am not sure whether there is much chance of that happening, but the pressure is on from the Pakistan government."
CNN said Pakistan would give the Taliban an ultimatum to hand over the prime suspect in the U.S. terror attacks in three days. CNN quoted sources close to Musharraf, but Qureshi said he had no knowledge of any ultimatum.
Pakistan is one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban government, and was a key backer of the purist Islamic movement as it swept to power in the mid-1990s, taking most of the country and ending two decades of civil war.
NOT A COWARD
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1998, has still not fully consolidated his grip on the country and has to juggle carefully the interests of various political and religious groups -- whom he also met on Sunday.
"The president is aware that whatever he is going to do will create some problems for Pakistan and he may see a reaction from the general public," said Hamid Meer, Editor of Aussas (Foundation) newspaper.
"But he is not a coward by any measure," said the Times' Sethi. "He is a very strong-willed man and he came across as such today. He was very clear in his mind that there was no choice and this was the right thing to do."
The United States has vowed to punish those responsible for Tuesday's attacks -- in which as many as 5,000 people may have been killed -- and also any country that harbours them.
But bin Laden, who has lived for years in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Taliban, on Sunday again denied any involvement.
"I have taken an oath of allegiance (to the Taliban leader) which does not allow me to do such things from Afghanistan," he said in a statement faxed by an aide to the Afghan Islamic Press.
Although Pakistan has yet to spell out in detail what assistance it will give Washington, the United States says Islamabad has promised full cooperation after requests for access to its airspace, sealing off the border with Afghanistan, cutting fuel supplies and sharing intelligence.
Some U.S. officials have suggested Washington also asked Musharraf to allow some U.S. military forces to be stationed in Pakistan in anticipation of raids against the multi-millionaire militant and his Taliban protectors.
TIME FOR PRINCIPLES
What Pakistan gets in return remains to be seen.
One military official told Reuters that Pakistan was likely to press Washington for more understanding of its thorny Kashmir conflict with India, reduce economic sanctions imposed since Musharraf's coup and persuade the World Bank and IMF to resume financial assistance.
But those briefed on Sunday thought it unlikely.
"He made clear that this is not the time to ask the United States for a quid pro quo, for bargaining," said Sethi. "This is a time for principles."
Musharraf has launched campaigns against terror and lawlessness in crime-ridden Pakistan.
But the stakes are now higher than ever before -- especially given the degree of support the Taliban enjoy within Pakistan.
The Taliban have threatened to attack any neighbouring countries supporting U.S. strikes -- a pointed warning against Pakistan delivered in Islamabad on Saturday by the Taliban's ambassador.
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