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Afghanistan: World Awaits Decisions In Kabul, Washington

The world seems to be holding its breath today as it awaits possible military retaliation by the U.S., a week to the day after the worst terrorist attacks in history struck New York and Washington on 11 September. In Kabul, reports say the ruling Taliban has now set conditions for handing over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. believes is the likely mastermind behind the attacks. In Washington, meanwhile, the massive investigation into the attacks and preparations for the anticipated military response continue.

Prague, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Unconfirmed reports in both the Western and Pakistani press say Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has now set conditions for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, identified by Washington as a prime suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.

The terms were said to have been agreed during a meeting yesterday in Kandahar -- the stronghold of the Taliban leadership -- between a high-ranking Pakistani team and Mullah Mohammad Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban. The Pakistani delegation is believed to have delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban: Hand over bin Laden or risk a massive military response led by the U.S.

The Taliban -- which says there is no proof against bin Laden -- is now said to be demanding that bin Laden be permitted to face trial in a neutral Islamic country, that the UN lift its sanctions against Afghanistan, and that all aid to the opposition Northern Alliance be suspended.

This development follows similar reports that Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, himself squeezed concessions from the U.S. in order to obtain Islamabad's cooperation in placing intense diplomatic pressure on the Taliban. Musharraf is reported to have demanded an end to economic sanctions imposed in 1998 by the U.S. after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, as well as the lifting of an American ban on weapons sales.

The United States blames bin Laden for a number of previous terrorist operations against U.S. targets. But the U.S. government has multiplied its pressure on Afghanistan -- where bin Laden is believed to be hiding -- since the devastating crashes of hijacked airliners in New York and Washington a week ago today.

A meeting of Afghanistan's top Islamic clerics and scholars is due to be held tomorrow to consider the situation. Western news agencies quoted Mullah Hamdullah Nomani, Kabul's mayor and the convenor of the grand council of Islamic clerics, as saying that about 700 clergy and scholars are expected.

The Taliban's Bakhtar News Agency transmitted throughout the country today warnings to Afghanis from the Taliban leadership to prepare for a U.S. invasion and a jihad -- or crusade -- against the United States if it attacks Afghanistan.

U.S. leaders yesterday were focusing more closely on bin Laden and his al-Qaeda ["The Base"] organization as their main target. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell:

"It is becoming clear with each passing hour, with each passing day, that it is the al-Qaeda network that is the prime suspect, as the president [has] said, and all roads lead to the leader of that organization, Osama bin Laden and his location in Afghanistan."

U.S. President George W. Bush made a symbolic pilgrimage yesterday to an Islamic center in Washington. He met there with U.S. Muslim leaders and told them the United States does not consider Islam the enemy and will not tolerate violence against its Islamic citizens. There have been scattered reports of assaults, arson, threats, and two possibly ethnically motivated murders directed at Muslims or U.S. citizens of Arab descent. Bush said:

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."

In New York yesterday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said emergency officials have raised the number of people recorded as missing after the World Trade Center attacks by 465 to 5,422. That figure includes hundreds of New York City firefighters and police officers. He said 201 bodies have been recovered so far, of which 135 have been identified. At the Pentagon crash site just outside Washington, in Virginia, 188 people are feared dead. More than 40 people were killed in the crash of a fourth hijacked airliner in rural Pennsylvania.

The attacks and related uncertainty have severely affected the U.S. economy. When trading on the New York Stock Exchange reopened yesterday after a suspension of four trading days, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 7 percent, or 680 points, the largest single numerical drop in its history -- this despite a preemptive half-point cut by the Federal Reserve Board in its discount rates for member banks, announced an hour before the opening.

The U.S. Congress is considering today a request from U.S. airlines for $24 billion in assistance to the industry hit hardest economically by the emergency.

A parade of foreign leaders headed by French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have scheduled visits to the United States in the next few days. South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo, president of the UN General Assembly, is due to meet early today in Washington with Secretary of State Powell, and the French president is scheduled to meet later today with President Bush.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the world's most populous Muslim nation, left Jakarta yesterday for a Washington visit that's due to begin tomorrow. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also is expected to arrive tomorrow. Blair is due on 20 September. Top officials of the European Union and the foreign ministers of Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, China, and Italy also have scheduled trips to the United States.

The United States is working diplomatically to forge an international coalition for what leaders are calling a war against terrorism. Government agencies, especially the Defense Department, say the country is prepared for an unconventional military response. Security officials have clapped a tight lid on the preparations, however.

The U.S. has announced a mobilization of the armed forces reserves and the National Guard, a step reserved for major national emergencies. Secretary of State Powell said:

"We are also doing everything necessary to protect ourselves here at home and to put ourselves on the right kind of security footing, so that we can be vigilant and alert to the threats that still exist within the country or may be directed at us in the future."

In Moscow, the Kremlin said in a statement today that Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed possible responses to the terrorist attacks on the United States in a telephone conversation late yesterday with French President Chirac. Chirac yesterday assured the United States of France's support.