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Afghanistan: Ambassador Says Taliban Will Defy U.S. Demands

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia is rejecting U.S. President George W. Bush's demand that it hand over Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden without evidence of his suspected terrorist crimes. In Pakistan today, religious radicals protested violently against a decision by their military rulers to allow the U.S. to use Pakistani airspace. The U.S., meanwhile, continues its worldwide investigation into last week's terrorist attacks.

Prague, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Calling the idea "an insult to Islam," a Taliban diplomat today rejected U.S. President George W. Bush's demand that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden, regarded by U.S. authorities as the chief suspect behind last week's terrorist attacks on the United States.

The rejection by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, appeared to be categorical. He reiterated a Taliban call for U.S. patience and promised a jihad -- or holy struggle -- if the United States attacks Afghanistan. As he spoke in Arabic, Deputy Ambassador Sohail Shaheen translated into English:

"The [Afghan] religious scholars demand that the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference conduct a neutral and meticulous investigation to find facts and prevent unjustified harassment of innocent people."

Zaeef also said his government is ready to defend Afghanistan from attack, as Shaheen translated:

"During [an] American attack, if Muslims, Afghan, and non-Afghans extend cooperation to the infidels, assist them, and carry out espionage activities for them, [they are] also considered foreign aggressor[s] and [their] murder becomes an obligation."

The Taliban's response appears to render inevitable a confrontation between Afghanistan's ruling militia and the United States and its allies. Bush said in a speech to both houses of the U.S. Congress on 20 September that the United States will regard as hostile any nation that harbors or supports international terrorism.

Bush yesterday also took the extraordinary step of creating a cabinet-level position to coordinate intelligence, defense, and law enforcement actions to counter terrorism against targets within the United States. He named Tom Ridge, governor of the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania, to the position of director of the Office of Homeland Security. Bush said Ridge will hold cabinet status and will report directly to the president.

In Pakistan today, a coalition of Pakistan's Islamist parties called for nationwide strikes and protests. The parties are at odds with the Pakistani government's decision to support a U.S. response to the terrorist attacks.

Pakistani police say they battled some protesters as violence erupted. In Peshawar, a crowd chanted "Allah-u Akbar," or "God is great," and the name of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

European Union leaders scheduled a meeting today in Brussels to review Europe's response to the attacks on the United States. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is to chair a meeting expected to endorse a package of anti-terrorism measures. French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are due to report on their discussions earlier this week with Bush in Washington.

Louis Michel, Belgian foreign minister, as well as Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Chris Patten, the EU's commissioner for external relations, are also expected to report on discussions they held in Washington yesterday with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani yesterday once more raised official estimates of the number of missing in the World Trade Center attacks:

"The official number [of missing] right now is up to 6,333. We have recovered 241 bodies, and there are officially now 6,291 injuries. We have removed 5,035 trucks and 68,943 tons of debris, structure and [there has been a] massive removal effort."

From around the world today reports are coming in of steps taken and small advances being made in the investigation into terrorist activity.

An Arab daily in Yemen reports that about 15 FBI investigators from the United States have arrived in Yemen. Newspaper reports quote Premier Abdelkadir Ba Jammal as saying the Yemeni government is cooperating closely with U.S. investigators. The newspapers quote Ba Jammal as saying officials have arrested at least 20 alleged Islamic extremists -- including suspected followers of bin Laden.

Interior Minister Fritz Behrens of Germany's state of North Rhine-Westphalia today quoted intelligence reports as saying Germany is working to identify 100 Islamic extremist "sleepers" -- agents thought to be living quiet lives in Germany for years, awaiting activation for terrorist missions.

French police say they detained seven suspected Islamic fundamentalists today in and around Paris. Police said that French domestic intelligence officials, as part of a campaign to forestall possible attacks on U.S. installations in France, are holding the seven for questioning.

On the economic front, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, America's central bank, told a Congressional committee yesterday that the American economy, as he put it, "ground to a halt" after last week's attacks. He said the economic freeze could be short-term.

Stock markets across Asia and Europe plunged again, reflecting fear of a global recession following possible U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan. Japan's Nikkei index fell to levels unseen in almost 18 years before recovering slightly. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index dropped close to a three-year low. British and French financial markets also took hits at today's openings.