White House warns Taliban: 'We will defeat you'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House bluntly warned Afghanistan's Taliban rulers Friday that "We will defeat you" if they refuse to turn suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden over to U.S. authorities.
The United States has labeled bin Laden a prime suspect in last week's attacks on New York and Washington, which may have killed more than 6,000.
"If they harbor terrorists, the president's message is clear: We will defeat you," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday.
President Bush demanded Thursday night that the Taliban surrender all leaders of bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization and close al-Qaeda's bases in the country. The Taliban have defied the U.S. demand, refusing to hand over bin Laden without proof or evidence that he was involved in last week's attacks on the United States.
The millionaire Saudi-born dissident has been living in Afghanistan since 1996 as a "guest" of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist militia that controls most of the country. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Friday that deporting him without proof would amount to an "insult to Islam."
The Taliban envoy added that his government was ready if necessary to defend the country against American attack.
"If they want to show their might, we are ready and we will never surrender before might and force," he said. "According to Islam, the blood of anyone who spies for the enemy or sympathizes with it in time of war must be shed."
U.S. officials say evidence gathered in other attacks linked to al-Qaeda provide the proof needed.
"There is already an indictment for Osama bin Laden," Fleischer said. "There's an indictment in the case of Tanzania, Kenya, the bombings in East Africa, indications that the al Qaeda organization and Osama bin Laden were involved in the bombing of the Cole. The president last night made his conditions clear and he said there would be no discussions and no negotiations." But asked whether removing the Taliban from power was among U.S. aims in the conflict with terrorist groups Bush outlined, Fleischer added, "The president's goal is not for removal of anyone from power."
Thursday night, Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over all leaders of bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization to U.S. authorities, close its training camps in the country and surrender "every terrorist and every person in their support structure" to appropriate authorities. He said the demands were not open to negotiation or discussion.
Bin Laden himself has already denied he had anything to do with the attacks, and Taliban officials repeatedly said he could not have been involved in the attacks.
The Taliban's Grand Islamic Council -- made up of about 600 Muslim clerics -- also expressed grief over last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and urged the U.S. to be patient in its investigations. But the Council warned that if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, the Taliban would call a jihad or "holy war" against the U.S. and its allies.
Pakistani envoys warned the Taliban on Monday to hand over bin Laden or face the threat of military strikes by the United States. Pentagon sources have already told CNN that warplanes are being sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the initial buildup of forces in America's "new war" against terrorism.
In a news conference Friday, Zaeef called on other Muslim countries to support Afghanistan in any battle with the United States. Speaking through an interpreter, Zaeef said he had no information on bin Laden's current whereabouts.
The Taliban told CNN that Friday's press conference represented their final word on the matter, and said President Bush's ultimatum posed great danger for Muslims.
"It has angered Muslims of the world and can plunge the whole region into a crisis," Zaeef said. "We are ready to cooperate if we are shown evidence. If American agencies are bent on putting the blame on bin Laden, then they won't be able to catch the real culprits."
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