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Bush team doubts claims bin Laden missing

Condoleezza Rice
"We are not going to jeopardize this investigation in order to satisfy the Taliban," Rice said.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the United States continued Sunday to ply its diplomatic and intelligence contacts throughout the Middle East and South Asia with a combination of tough talk and tangible rewards, President Bush's top security advisers readily dismissed claims by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban that al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was nowhere to be found.

The Taliban reported early Sunday that operatives of its government had sought to deliver an edict to bin Laden -- whom the Bush administration characterizes as the central figure in the airborne terror attacks on New York and Washington nearly two weeks ago -- but bin Laden had gone missing.

That edict, produced last week by a council of Afghanistan's most influential clerics, asks bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. The United States has pressed the Taliban regime to turn bin Laden over to American authorities with haste and dismantle the operations of his al Qaeda terror network within their borders.

The Taliban have refused, saying they want proof of bin Laden's involvement in the September 11 attacks.

Speaking in Washington on Sunday morning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said they saw no reason to believe the Taliban were telling the truth.

"The fact is, the Taliban do know where the al Qaeda organization is, and the fact they are saying they don't is simply not credible," Rumsfeld told reporters.

Rice, speaking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, said the time has come for the Taliban to demonstrate what they know and acknowledge that bin Laden and al Qaeda have a long, proven record of violent activity and sharp rhetoric against the United States.

"The Taliban should recognize that this has a long history," she said. "Prior to September 11, al Qaeda was behind the bombing of U.S. embassies. Osama bin Laden was indicted for these bombings, and we know they were associated with the bombing of the (USS) Cole."

The United States has evidence, "historical and otherwise," Rice said, that it will lay out to allies, other anti-terrorism coalition participants and the American people in due time.

"We are not going to jeopardize this investigation in order to satisfy the Taliban," she said.

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There were indications from Rice that the United States may be poised to take up an offer of cooperation by Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which has been battling the Taliban for control of the civil war-ravaged country since the early 1990s.

The alliance controls the northernmost 10 percent of Afghanistan and several pockets of territory deep within its mountains -- territory near which bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives might be inclined to take refuge.

The alliance offered the United States some indication Sunday of where it believes bin Laden to be.

Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance's foreign minister, told CNN: "I am quite confident that he is in Afghanistan, that he is in (the) southern part of Afghanistan and most probably he is in Oruzgan province. He has made lots of hiding places throughout the years in that province."

The alliance, which has offered the United States access to intelligence, its vast knowledge of Afghanistan's rough terrain and some 30,000 of its troops, launched an offensive against the Taliban over the weekend and claims to have taken some key villages.

"Clearly, a lot of Afghans understand the Taliban has wrecked (their) country," Rice said. "A number may wish to join this fight against the Taliban.

"We are working with a number of possible options, a number of possible assets around the world," she continued. "A number of Afghans understand what the Taliban is doing to their country and are mobilizing against it."

U.S. officials say they're satisfied with Saudis

While much of its ire was focused on al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Bush administration continued through the weekend to keep a dialogue going with nearly every country surrounding land-locked Afghanistan.

Most significantly, Bush lifted a strict regime of sanctions imposed on Pakistan in 1998 following that country's nuclear weapons tests. Pakistan, one of only two countries to recognize the Taliban officially, has opted to side with the U.S.-led coalition despite vocal protests and threats of unrest from militant Islamists in several cities.

The sanctions included a halt to U.S. economic aid and a ban on selling or sharing so-called "dual use" technologies that had both civilian and nuclear-military uses.

The United Arab Emirates, a Persian Gulf state with tight ties to the United States, severed diplomatic relations with the Taliban on Saturday. Saudi Arabia, whose participation in the anti-terror efforts will be essential, is the other only other nation to keep formal government-to-government contact with the Taliban.

Pakistan has been pressing the United States for a relaxation of the economic sanctions and a retirement of its nearly $30 billion international debt since the restrictions were imposed -- and it intensified those demands as the United States pressed for its assistance following the attacks.

Bush also lifted the sanctions against India on Saturday.

India and Pakistan, subcontinent archenemies, exploded nuclear devices within days of each other three years ago, raising fears of a third war between the two. The United States implemented the sanctions to demonstrate international displeasure with India and Pakistan's brinksmanship.

"Restructuring our debt, lifting of sanctions and other measures like this will help us achieve our objectives," said Pakistan Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz.

"This gives the Pakistani economy fresh air to breathe; it has room to recover," said analyst Brahma Chellaney in New Delhi. "We are actually reliving history. Twenty years ago, the United States roped in Pakistan in a covert war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and to do that the Americans had to reward Pakistan, provide Pakistan with economic and military packages.

"And two decades later we are seeing the same pattern. A new coalition, a second Afghan war, with Pakistan once again as a staging ground, a frontline state," he said.

"To reward Pakistan, the Americans are being forced to ease sanctions, to provide economic aid and to ask allies like Japan to come to the aid of the battered Pakistan economy."

Several administration officials said Sunday that they were satisfied with the participation of the Saudis, dismissing some published reports that indicated the kingdom was balking at U.S. requests to use its air bases there as staging areas for potential military action against Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told CBS' "Meet the Press" that the Saudis have been "very responsive" to all U.S. requests, though he refused to detail what the United States was seeking.

Rumsfeld, also speaking with CBS, said, "Insofar as I am aware, we have gotten everything from Saudi Arabia that we have asked them to do. I have been in touch with the Saudi leadership, and there is no question they are our friends."

-- CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.

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