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Afghanistan: Taliban's Muslim Clergy Map Response To U.S. Demands

Hundreds of Muslim clerics are meeting today in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to consider the Taliban's response to U.S. demands for the surrender of Osama bin Laden. In Washington, President George W. Bush is scheduled today to continue a series of meetings with world leaders. Bush has expressed hope that a cessation of violence ordered by Palestinian and Israeli leaders may presage a new peace movement in the Mideast -- considered necessary to U.S. hopes of recruiting Arab governments into a global alliance against terrorism.

Prague, 19 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than 1,000 Islamic scholars met in the Afghan capital, Kabul, today to consider the response of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to international demands for the surrender of Osama bin Laden.

The Afghan Islamic Press news agency reports from Pakistan that the Council of Islamic Clerics' meeting opened with a message from the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, saying that the real intent of the United States is to destroy the Taliban's Islamic system. Omar's message said that despite U.S. claims, bin Laden could not have been responsible for last week's terrorist hijackings of U.S. airliners. The planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington, killing close to 6,000 people.

In his message, Omar also called on the United States for patience in its demand that the Taliban hand over bin Laden.

In the Taliban structure, the clerics' council functions as an advisory body to Omar, who can accept or reject their advice or use it to support a decision he makes independently.

The UN Security Council is calling on the Taliban to hand bin Laden over immediately and unconditionally. And the UN's envoy to Afghanistan said in Islamabad, Pakistan, today that the Taliban should understand that it would be a grave risk not to comply with international demands to deliver the suspected terrorist.

Since the terrorist attacks a week ago yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush has spoken by telephone and in person with more than 20 world leaders as he works to build a worldwide alliance against terrorism broader even than that assembled by his father in the Gulf War against Iraq a little more than a decade ago.

The president met yesterday in the White House with French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac afterward expressed conditional solidarity with Bush and with the American people:

"I wanted to express to him (President Bush) and to them (the American people), our determination, which is boundless, to combat, with all necessary means, this new type of absolute evil, which is terrorism. I wanted also to express France's availability."

Bush has meetings scheduled in the White House today with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

Following his arrival in Washington, Ivanov said he is carrying a message to Bush from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ivanov said the Russian government and its people are as one with the United States in opposition to terrorism.

"The serious difficulties with battling international terrorism are that it is complex. These are not isolated incidents. These are not isolated individuals. It is an international problem which calls for a worldwide strategy."

Bush's meeting with Sukarnoputri, leader of the world's most populous Muslim country, is significant symbolically. U.S. leaders are seeking to emphasize that the "war against terrorism" repeatedly declared by Bush is not a war against Arabs or against Islam.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who openly supports Bush's anti-terrorist stand, is expected in Washington tomorrow.

Secretary of State Colin Powell met yesterday with South Korea's foreign minister. The German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is in Washington today, and foreign ministers from China, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Saudi Arabia -- as well as the three top diplomatic officials of the European Union -- are due tomorrow and in the next few days.

In Germany today, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the Bundestag that Germany is ready to take military action against terrorism, but that such measures must be thoughtfully considered:

"Germany is ready to take risks, also in the military field, but it will not go on adventures."

Schroeder said the United States is duty-bound to consult with its European allies on any proposed antiterrorist measures.

Russia's State Duma opened its autumn session today with counterterrorism leading its agenda. Before the session, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, met with Duma members to discuss a U.S. call for joint action. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is to meet in Moscow today with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov.

In Brussels, NATO's North Atlantic Council met today and discussed last week's terrorist attacks. In response, the alliance invoked Article 5 of its founding Washington Treaty, which says that an attack on any alliance member is considered an attack on the entire alliance. But Yves Brodeur, a spokesman for NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, told RFE/RL after today's meeting that the U.S. has not yet made any request for military assistance:

"The next step will be for the United States of America to inform NATO partners of its intention as to, essentially, take advantage of Article 5 [of the Washington Treaty]. And it's a decision that really rests with them. So until we've heard from them, nothing is going to start here."

Bush said yesterday that he sees a glimmer of hope for diminished violence in the Mideast. U.S. and international leaders have been exerting increased pressure on combatants there to implement a truce, considered necessary to U.S. hopes of recruiting Arab governments into a global alliance against terrorism.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered his security forces yesterday to enforce a cease-fire, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli army to halt attacks and withdraw from Palestinian-ruled territory.

Powell also called the developments positive: "Chairman Arafat has issued some strong, positive statements with respect to the situation in the region, and the efforts he will be making to reduce, eliminate, the violence. And I am pleased that (Israeli) Foreign Minister Peres and Prime Minister Sharon affirmed to me that they would be doing everything on their side to disengage from the opportunities for conflict with the Palestinians in specific towns and cities."

In New York, hopes faded away today that rescuers would unearth any more survivors of the World Trade twin-towers collapse. Officials confirm 218 dead, 152 bodies identified and 5,422 people still missing. The last survivors were rescued one week ago today.

The economic impact of the terrorist attacks continues to concern leaders and economists around the world. The U.S. Dow Jones industrial average took a record fall on 17 September to close below 9,000 for the first time since December 1998, and dropped another 17.30 points by yesterday's close. But Asian stocks showed signs of rebounding early today, and the dollar strengthened against the yen.

The U.S. federal government has also pledged billions of dollars of increased aid to New York and to the shattered U.S. aircraft industry.