Taliban leader hits back at U.S.
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The supreme leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has accused the U.S. of using suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden as a "pretext" to destroy the Taliban's Islamic system of government.
In a statement released to some 600 Muslim clerics meeting in Kabul to decide the fate of bin Laden, supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar repeated that the Taliban does not allow bin Laden to use Afghanistan as base to attack anyone.
The meeting of the Grand Islamic Council in the Afghan capital comes after a delegation of Pakistani envoys warned the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face the threat of military strikes by the U.S.
Bin Laden has been named by U.S. officials as the number one suspect in last weeks suicide attacks on New York and Washington.
President George W. Bush has warned that the U.S. will make no distinction between those who plan terrorist attacks and those who harbor them.
In his statement, a copy of which has been obtained by CNN, Mullah Omar says that the Taliban has taken away all of bin Laden's communications systems and he is unable to contact anyone outside the country.
He asks: Where did the pilots get their training for the attack? His answer: Not in Afghanistan, but in the United States.
Mullah Omar also stressed that the Taliban does not want any trouble with the United States, who he accuses of blaming Afghanistan to cover up the failure of its own security and intelligence that made last week's attacks possible.
And he adds that the U.S. must produce evidence that proves bin Laden's connection to last week's terror attacks.
The millionaire Saudi-born dissident has been living in Afghanistan for several years as a "guest" of the Taliban.
So far they have refused to hand bin Laden over to the United States.
As the central Asian country braces itself for possible U.S. strikes, the Taliban has stepped up pressure for western journalists to leave Afghanistan.
CNN's Nic Robertson, reporting from Taliban headquarters in Kandahar, says he and cameraman Alfredo DeLara, have been sent a ruling from the supreme leader of the Taliban, "telling us this morning that our time had come".
Taliban officials told Robertson and DeLara, the only Western-based TV journalists left in Afghanistan, they could not guarantee the journalists' safety. They are due to leave later Wednesday.
According to Pakistani officials the meeting of the Grand Islamic Council is talking about whether to give up bin Laden, to a third country, other than the United States.
But observers have told CNN that the United States is unlikely to accept that.
Among the conditions the clerics are believed to be discussing are the prospects for international recognition of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and the lifting of sanctions.
The Council is effectively the lawmaking body of the Taliban government which meets to debate matters of national, political or spiritual importance.
Whatever decision comes out of the council, it must be unanimous, and reaching a consensus is expected to take two to three days.
Along with bin Laden's fate, they are expected to discuss measures to take should the United States attack Afghanistan and whether to call a jihad, or "Holy war", against the United States.
Omar is effectively compelled to back whatever course of action the Council eventually decides although he can make an independent decision.
However, such a course of action could threaten his leadership.
Meanwhile the Pakistani delegation that visited Kabul in an attempt to convince the Taliban to turn over bin Laden returned home Tuesday.
They reported progress, but no agreement.
'Dead or alive'
The Taliban have already said bin Laden was not responsible for the attacks and have resisted calls to hand him over.
As well as being a "prime suspect" in last week's attacks, bin Laden is also thought to be linked to previous acts of terrorism including the 1998 simultaneous bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Speaking to reporters Monday, U.S. President Bush indicated America wanted the exiled Saudi dissident "dead or alive".
Bin Laden himself has already denied he had anything to do with the attacks.
On Tuesday, Taliban officials were preparing to deal with a possible U.S. military attack.
Officials have said that doctors and hospitals around the country were being asked to assess how prepared they were to treat casualties.
Most of the hospitals in Afghanistan are in relatively poor condition, with few facilities and few supplies.
However, officials said the doctors had pledged to stand with the Taliban in case of attack.
CNN's Mike Chinnoy in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report
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