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Afghanistan: Clerics Meet On Bin Laden

Kabul, 19 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of Afghan Muslim clerics are expected to meet today in Kabul to discuss the fate of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi named by the U.S. as the chief suspect responsible for last week's devastating terror attacks in New York and Washington. A delegation from neighboring Pakistan left Afghanistan yesterday after talks aimed at persuading the Taliban government, which has been sheltering bin Laden, to hand him over or risk a possible international military strike.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned in a BBC interview that the Taliban have a clear choice -- to stop harboring bin Laden or to be treated as part of the international terrorist apparatus.

Chirac offered France's backing to the U.S. campaign against terrorism, including the possible deployment of French forces. But Chirac said France reserves the right to decide for itself the level of its military involvement, if any.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the extradition of bin Laden would be only "one step" toward solving the problem of international terrorism. He said bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, has representatives in as many as 60 countries.

The Taliban has told Afghans to be prepared for a jihad, or holy war, in case of foreign attack.

The leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, told Muslim clerics today that bin Laden could not have carried out terrorist attacks on the United States.

The U.S. has named bin Laden the chief suspect in last week's coordinated terrorist attacks that killed nearly 6,000 people. And the United Nations Security Council has called on the Taliban to hand him over immediately without conditions.

But Omar said at the beginning of the meeting in Kabul that the Taliban wants any proof against bin Laden to be given to the Afghan Supreme Court or to clerics of three Islamic countries.

A delegation from neighboring Pakistan advised the Taliban government that it risked a possible international military strike unless it hands bin Laden over.

But Omar appealed to the U.S. government to "exercise complete patience" and "gather complete information and find the culprits."

Omar also accused the United States as using the calls for handing over bin Laden as a pretext to destroy the Taliban.

In other news, President George W. Bush has signed a Congressional resolution authorizing the use of U.S. military force against those found responsible for last week's terror attacks in New York and Washington. Bush signed the measure after talks at the White House with French President Jacques Chirac.

Bush reiterated that the U.S. is preparing to retaliate for last week's attacks by striking at terrorists and those who support them. Bush stressed that any action should not be considered a campaign against Islam or Arabs.

"It is important to know that this is not a campaign against Islam, this is not a campaign against Arab people. This is a campaign against terrorists, this is a campaign against evil-doers who hate freedom."

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said there is virtually no chance of finding alive any of the 5,400 people listed as missing in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.