Pakistan delegation returns empty handed after talks with Taliban
KABUL, Sept 28 (AFP) - Efforts to avert US military strikes on Afghanistan took a step backward Friday when the ruling Taliban told Pakistani Islamic clerics they would not bow to US pressure to extradite Osama bin Laden.
"The Taliban clearly said there was no question of handing over Osama bin Laden, on moral or religious grounds," said pro-Taliban cleric Mufti Mohammad Jamil after his return to Pakistan.
Jamil was part of a 10-member Pakistani delegation, comprised mostly of religious leaders, that met with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in the militia's southern stronghold of Kandahar.
"Omar said the United States should not insist on the bin Laden issue," he said, adding that the Taliban chief had indicated "positive discussions" could only take place once the United States ended "excesses against Afghan Muslims".
The delegation was accompanied by Pakistani military intelligence chief General Mahmood Ahmed.
Washington has blamed bin Laden, who has lived under the Taliban's wing in Afghanistan since 1996, for the attacks on New York and Washington which killed some 6,000 people.
Although Jamil said the Pakistani religious leaders "agreed" with Omar, there were no details about what message Pakistan's powerful military intelligence chief delivered.
Earlier Friday, Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan said the clerics had gone with their own agenda, and stressed Ahmed was carrying no new proposals from Islamabad.
"Our main purpose was to discuss the possibility of averting any attacks, because Pakistan has a stake in this," Jamil said of the delegation's mission.
"We heard their viewpoint and we agreed with their explanation," he added.
Pakistan has insisted it is not trying to negotiate with the Taliban or mediate between the militia and the United States, but has warned them of the consequences of ignoring the demands of the international community.
"The position of the Pakistan government is that in view of the gravity of the situation, the Taliban leadership should be responsive to what the international community is expecting of them," Khan said.
Among the clerics on the Pakistan delegation was Nizammudin Shamazai, head of one of the largest Islamic seminaries in Karachi and a former tutor of several Taliban leaders. He is believed to be very close to Omar.
The Pakistani mission coincided with the publication in Pakistan of an interview with bin Laden, in which he reportedly issued a fresh denial of any involvement in the September 11 attacks.
"As a Muslim, I will not lie," bin Laden said in the interview with the Urdu-language Ummat daily, the veracity of which could not be confirmed.
The paper said it had received written responses to its questions from bin Laden through contacts with Taliban leaders.
"I was neither aware of these attacks, nor would I support the killing of innocent men, women and children," bin Laden was quoted as saying.
He went on to add that jihad, or holy war, he declared in 1998 against "anti-Islamic" countries like the United States and Israel would survive his own death or capture.
"Jihad will continue even if I am not around," he said.
The Taliban have repeatedly defied US ultimatums to hand over bin Laden.
An official Pakistani delegation led by Ahmed had met with Omar in Kandahar last week. It delivered a message from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf urging the Taliban to "act with prudence" because the life of the Afghan people was at stake.
"That first effort was solely on the part of the Pakistan government," Khan said. "This delegation is on the part of an important segment of the people of Pakistan and we hope that it will produce results," Khan said.
"I wouldn't characterise it as the first, second or last chance. Our objective is that a positive outcome is achieved."
Pakistan is the only country in the world which still recognises the Taliban.
President Musharraf has pledged "unstinted support" for the US-led war on terrorism, but his government is deeply concerned at the prospect of military action against its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.
Pakistan shares a 2,500-kilometer (1,500-mile) border with Afghanistan and houses more than two million Afghan refugees. It is feared hundreds of thousands of new refugees will try to cross the border in the event of a US attack.
Meanwhile, a Taliban official quoted by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency said a British journalist was arrested in Afghanistan on Friday for entering the country illegally.
The journalist, Yvonne Ridley, a London-based correspondent for the Sunday Express, was arrested together with two guides some 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the Pakistani border, near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
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