Taliban remain defiant
U.S. moves to cut off escape route for bin Laden, al Qaeda forces
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Taliban said Wednesday they have no contact with Osama bin Laden as the U.S. military moved to cut off a possible escape route for the suspected terrorist or his followers.
The United States is now prepared to stop and board ships in the Arabian Sea if intelligence reports indicate bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda network or illegal cargo might be on board, according to Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As the Taliban and al Qaeda lose ground in Afghanistan, Pace said the military is taking precautionary measures should bin Laden and his followers try to flee the country.
"One way they might try to flee is by ship, so we are making sure we are have the assets in place to handle that if it happens," he said during a Pentagon press briefing in Washington.
Pace told reporters no ships had been stopped yet as part of the mission, which involves military and law enforcement personnel. He provided no other details, other than to say it was similar to operations that U.S. forces have been conducting in the Persian Gulf for the past 10 years.
Earlier Wednesday, Syed Tayyad Agha, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's personal secretary, said the Taliban had sufficient forces to defend the area around the southern stronghold of Kandahar, where the fundamentalist movement began its systematic takeover of Afghanistan in 1994.
"We just want to satisfy our nation and (other Muslims) in the world that we will try our best and we will defend our nation and we will defend our religion (to the death), and we will not give anyone a chance to disrupt our Islamic rule in Kandahar and surrounding provinces," Agha said at a news conference.
The Taliban still control the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan, Zabol, and part of Ghazni province, Agha said.
Agha also said the United States and its allies should "forget the 11 September attacks" because Afghans had nothing to do with them.
In Washington, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded sharply.
"The Taliban gave a press conference today in which they suggested that we should forget about September 11 and move on, and I can assure them we will not forget about September 11," Wolfowitz said "We are moving on, and I think before long the world will forget about the Taliban."
'No idea' where bin Laden is
Northern Alliance and Taliban forces have been engaged in what the Pentagon called a "standoff" over Kandahar, where the Taliban retreated after the fall of Kabul and other northern areas in the past two weeks.
Taliban leaders in the besieged town of Konduz agreed Wednesday to stop fighting, after hours of talks with a top Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Konduz is the last city in northern Afghanistan under Taliban control and has been the source of heavy fighting in recent days.
Agha said he had no information about the situation in Konduz and declared rumors that Omar was prepared to negotiate surrender of Kandahar -- the Taliban's spiritual center -- "baseless propaganda."
Omar, he said, was in a secure, secret location under Taliban control, but the Taliban do not know the whereabouts of bin Laden.
"We have no idea where he is because our areas are limited now to three or four provinces so now we don't know where he is," Agha said. "There is no relation (with bin Laden) right now, there is no communication."
Agha also said the Taliban doubted the veracity of an interview of bin Laden conducted by a Pakistani journalist in which the suspected terrorist said he had nuclear weapons.
"We are not sure that he might have done this interview," Agha said, "and we don't see the chances of such a weapon with someone who used to live as a refugee in Afghanistan."
Wolfowitz said the comments from the Taliban and other reports indicate that bin Laden is in trouble.
"I think it does suggest that this is a man on the run, that this is a man who is being deserted by people who sheltered him not long ago, that this is a man with a price on his head," he said, adding none of that "is good for his future prospects."
U.S. offering reward for bin Laden
The United States has been dropping leaflets around Afghanistan offering a $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's capture.
The United States and its allies launched airstrikes in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was believed to be protected by the ruling Taliban, on October 7 in retaliation for the September 11 terror attacks in the United States.
President Bush demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over, but Agha said Wednesday that the United States "had no right" to make that demand because it has no treaty with the Taliban covering such issues.
Agha also said that international support of the Taliban's opposition would return the country to the "division and other problems it was facing before 1994 and the time there was fighting in different factions of Afghanistan" after the fall of the communist government.
"After the collapse of the communist regime in Afghanistan (fighting among) different political jihadic parties ... caused anarchy in the country and caused looting, killing and robbing the innocent people of Afghanistan," he said.
The Taliban's implementation of sharia, the strict Islamic law under which severe penalties are meted out to those who disobey, solved the problem, Agha said, and led to the Taliban's eventual control over much of the country, beginning in Kandahar.
"The people of other provinces saw the situation and security and other good things in Kandahar, so they also requested for the Taliban forces to enter the provinces and take control of the provinces," Agha said.
However, many people were disgruntled by the Taliban's harsh version of Islamic law, which banned non-religious music, television and other forms of entertainment, forced men to grow beards and imposed Draconian restrictions on women.
Once the Taliban abandoned Kabul last week, men shaved their beards, women unveiled their faces and music and television instantly reappeared.
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