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World: Afghan Clerics Urge Bin Laden To Leave, Reject International Appeals,

In Afghanistan, Islamic clerics -- meeting to discuss international appeals to extradite suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden -- today asked the Saudi-born extremist to leave the country voluntarily. The call comes as tens of thousands of frightened Afghans flee to the border with Pakistan and humanitarian agencies gear up for a full-scale emergency. Meanwhile, the United States yesterday began deploying its military forces after warning Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face the consequences.

Prague, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Information Ministry of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban Islamic militia says that Islamic clerics from across Afghanistan adopted a resolution today asking terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily, but rejected international appeals to hand him over.

Meeting as the Council of Islamic Clerics, the religious scholars also passed a resolution today calling for a jihad, or holy struggle, if the United States attacks Afghanistan.

The council began meeting yesterday to consider the Taliban's response to a U.S. demand that Afghanistan immediately surrender bin Laden and other leaders of his al-Qaeda organization that U.S. officials say are the chief suspects in the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

In the Taliban structure, the clerics' council functions as an advisory body on Islamic law to the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Omar offered yesterday to hold talks with the United States. He said that U.S. charges against bin Laden came without evidence, and that Americans are threatening military action without justification. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded that U.S. President George W. Bush has determined that the time had passed for negotiations.

Thousands of Afghans reportedly are fleeing cities in anticipation of a U.S.-led strike. Relief agencies are warning of an impending human disaster.

The Taliban's deputy ambassador in Islamabad quotes bin Laden as saying he is willing to stand trial in Afghanistan or in another Muslim country if the United States produces convincing evidence against him. The deputy ambassador, Suhail Shaheen, told Reuters that bin Laden continues to deny involvement in the attacks.

The United States had already rejected this approach.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visited the Pentagon site yesterday where hijackers deliberately crashed one of four airliners on 11 September. Ashcroft, the nation's top law enforcement official, said after the visit that the United States will protect the legal rights of any people it arrests on terrorism charges:

"We will conduct this effort to investigate and to prosecute with strict regard for every safeguard of the United States Constitution."

President George W. Bush is to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress late today about the recent terrorist attacks. The president says he will talk about the perpetrators and their possible motives.

Although the United States began yesterday massing warships, combat aircraft, and other armed forces in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, the White House says that Bush in his congressional speech will not go into detail on the military preparations.

Bush's administration continues a diplomatic effort today to forge a global coalition for the U.S.-declared war on terrorism. He met yesterday with Megawati Sukarnoputri, president of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to meet with the U.S. leadership today, and China's foreign minister is also due in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell held talks with the foreign ministers of Germany and Russia, both of whom promised assistance.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met today at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where Armitage briefed NATO allies about U.S. plans. Afterward, Robertson told reporters that NATO members are prepared for an extended struggle:

"The allies -- all of NATO and the individual allies -- are determined to collectively contribute, in cooperation with other members of the international community, to this fight, maybe long fight, but we hope successful fight against terrorism."

Blair said today after meeting in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac that Britain stands with the United States against terrorism. Blair said military action is necessary and inevitable:

"Those [who] can assist in bringing to justice the people responsible for these terrible acts of terrorism should do so. That is very, very clear, and that we must take action against the people responsible is also plain and certain."

Chirac said after the meeting that France will join in what he called any "appropriate and effective" response to the terrorist attacks. He, too, said a military response is inevitable.

An EU delegation led by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel and Javier Solana, EU high commissioner for foreign policy, is in Washington today to meet with Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and U.S. congressional leaders.

Iran's official news agency IRNA says that Iran has begun counter-diplomacy to fend off U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan. IRNA says that Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has telephoned Solana and the foreign ministers of Italy, Pakistan, India, and current EU presidency holder Belgium, to say an attack could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and a hardening of Islamic opinion against the West.

Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf declared in a nationally televised speech that the impending war against terrorism is not directed against Islam. Musharraf said Pakistan faces a crisis over his offer of Pakistan's assistance in a possible U.S. military action to capture bin Laden and to destroy his suspected terrorist network.

"People are also talking about Islam and Afghanistan and the United States wants [the] support of Pakistan. They want it in this order: first, intelligence; second, information exchange and the use of our air space; and third, logistical support. At this moment, they don't have any plan of action, and haven't provided us with any details, but I'll tell you that whatever America wants, they've got the support of the United Nations and the General Assembly, a resolution. And quite a few Islamic countries have given support."

In the United States, adverse economic reactions included an airline industry crisis and continued stock market decline.

Both American Airlines, the world's biggest air carrier, and United Airlines announced they are cutting 20,000 jobs each. Earlier, aircraft-maker Boeing said it expects to lay off 30,000 workers. The Bush administration has proposed $5 billion in direct cash assistance to the industry.

Key U.S. stock indices fell for a third straight day yesterday as the U.S. and other national financial markets continued to suffer despite efforts by central banks around the world to bolster confidence by cutting interest rates.