Bush warns Taliban: 'Time is running out'
From Kelly Wallace
EMMITSBURG, Maryland (CNN) -- The Bush administration sharpened its calls for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to hand over suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on Saturday, with President Bush warning that "time is running out."
In his weekly radio address, Bush repeated his demand that the Taliban surrender bin Laden, the Islamic militant leader U.S. officials blame for the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York. The United States has been massing forces in southwest Asia for a possible strike against Afghanistan if the Taliban refuse to comply.
"The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations," the president said. "Full warning has been given, and time is running out."
Bush has said he would set no timetable for military action and that the United States will act at a time of its own choosing.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told CNN on Saturday that a coalition was in place to begin military action.
"We've got many countries who have actively sought us in order to engage in military activities with us. We've got overflight rights from over 26 countries, and we've got basing agreements with about 21 countries right now," Armitage said. "When our president makes up his mind to go forward, I think we're fully ready."
U.S. officials have tried to emphasize that any military action will be aimed at the Taliban rather than the Afghan people. The administration has tried to reach out to Afghan opposition leaders and announced plans Thursday to donate $320 million in humanitarian aid to the country, which has been battered by two decades of war and a widespread drought.
"Despite efforts by the Taliban to disrupt these critical aid shipments, we will deliver food and seeds, vaccines and medicines by truck, and even by draft animals," Bush said. "Conditions permitting, we will bring help directly to the people of Afghanistan by air drops."
The administration Saturday also rejected an offer by the ruling Taliban to release Western aid workers on trial in Afghanistan if the United States withdraws its threat of military strikes against Afghanistan.
The aid workers, including two Americans, are accused of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity -- a serious offense under the Taliban's severe Islamic code. Saturday's statement is the first time the Taliban have linked the aid workers to the demand that they give up bin Laden.
"If the United States is ready to ensure the Afghan people that their action is not against the Afghan people, the Taliban are ready to release the eight aid workers," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told CNN in a written statement. He warned of a possible humanitarian catastrophe if Afghans continue to flee in fear of U.S. action.
But a Bush administration official said Saturday the aid workers should be released unconditionally.
"This is not a negotiation," said the administration official, stressing that it is time for the Taliban to "act to meet all of the president's demands now."
Bush chaired a 45-minute video teleconference from Camp David with his National Security Council team Saturday morning. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, and CIA Director George Tenet attended the meeting at the presidential retreat, while other advisers participated from Washington.
One topic of discussion during the meeting was expected to be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's five-nation trip to the Middle East and Central Asia. U.S. officials described the trip as "very positive," saying they are "very pleased about the cooperation the U.S. is getting."
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