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Saudis tipped to desert Taliban: sources



By CNN State Department
Correspondent Andrea Koppel
and producer Elise Labott

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Diplomatic sources have told CNN Saudi Arabia could soon join the United Arab Emirates in breaking off diplomatic ties with the Taliban-led Afghanistan government.

While Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said this week that his country has downgraded its relationship with the Taliban even before the September 11 attack, the United States wants the Saudis to cut all ties. A Saudi diplomat told CNN earlier this week that the Saudis "are 100 percent with America."

"We think this is a real fight," he said. "We are ready to go all the way."

A senior State Department official also told CNN that Saudi Arabia expressed that it was fully in agreement with U.S. plans for an international coalition against terrorism.

The UAE's decision to sever ties with the Taliban leaves only two other countries that still recognize Afghanistan's ruling Taliban -- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Hand over suspect

A UAE diplomat told CNN that over the past few days the Persian Gulf nation had made intensive efforts with the Taliban government to persuade it to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution.

They demanded it hand over bin Laden for a fair international trial on the accusations that he was behind the terror attacks in New York and Washington.

"We were trying to help them find a solution, but we didn't get a response," he said.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has not explicitly stated its support for the United States to use its Prince Sultan Airbase in an air war against Afghanistan or any other countries suspected of harboring terrorists.

A senior administration official told CNN it was "premature" to secure such support, because plans for a U.S. military campaign are not yet finalized and the United States is not engaging in "hypothetical discussions."

This official also suggested that Saudi Arabia is too far from Afghanistan to be a hub of U.S. military forces.

"The mood music coming out of Riyadh is as good as we can hope for," he told CNN.

Conduit for diplomacy

Pakistan has had the closest diplomatic relationship with the neighboring Taliban and is the main conduit for diplomacy with the United States.

Even before the attack, Pakistan used its influence with the Taliban in an attempt to help secure the release of eight international aid workers, including two Americans, on trial for charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The State Department said last week the aid workers are still being held by the Taliban in Kabul.

A Taliban ambassador remains in Pakistan and is still a potential channel for diplomacy between the two countries, although there are no known diplomatic initiatives underway.

Earlier this week a Pakistani delegation representing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf traveled to Afghanistan, and demanded the handover of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, or face U.S. air strikes.

In addition, a senior Pakistani official has told CNN that a letter from Musharraf, delivered by the delegation, demanded the Taliban hand over more than a dozen bin Laden associates, close down all terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and allow a neutral country to verify once that was done.

Asked to leave

Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has asked bin Laden to leave the country if he wishes, but Mullah Omar will not force him to go without proof of his guilt.

The ulema -- the religious clerics -- recommended Friday that bin Laden should be asked to leave. The Taliban have said Mullah Omar does not have to comply with the clerics' decision.

Events have plunged Pakistan, wedged between Afghanistan on the west and India on the east, into a geographical and political crisis.

Musharraf appealed for his people's support and trust as he laid out reasons for joining the United States in an international coalition against terrorism.

Across the country, protests indicate many Pakistanis do not support the president's alliance with the United States.

On Friday, at least three people were killed in anti-American demonstrations. Protests were more peaceful on Saturday.






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