As signs grow that some sort of U.S. strike against Afghanistan is imminent, the ambassador to Pakistan of Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban government appealed yesterday for negotiations. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from the Pakistan capital Islamabad.
Islamabad, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, has appealed "to all countries and their peoples to negotiate to solve the crisis."
He made his statement as America seemed to be running out of patience that the Taliban government is refusing to hand over the chief suspect in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has admitted to sheltering bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Pressure on Afghanistan is mounting as NATO and Britain, America's closest ally in the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, both said yesterday they are convinced by U.S. evidence that bin Laden masterminded the 11 September attacks, which claimed an estimated 6,000 lives.
But Zaeef said the Taliban would not surrender bin Laden without proof of his involvement in the attacks. He said the Taliban had asked for such evidence, but the U.S. has only insisted on the handover of bin Laden.
Zaeef said: "We are part of the world and want to be treated as such."
Pakistan is the only country to retain diplomatic ties with the Taliban government because it says it wants to keep a channel open for the isolated Afghan leadership to communicate with the rest of the world.
Pakistan has previously sent its own missions to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to persuade the Taliban to negotiate -- but to no avail. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Muhammad Khan would not say whether Pakistan regarded the Taliban ambassador's remarks as a significant change in the Afghan government's stance: "Basically, this is a question between the United States and the Taliban. The U.S. position is that there is no room for any negotiations and the Taliban ambassador has made this particular statement. It is the U.S. side [that] can respond to this comment. I do not know whether this was a formal offer or whether this was a comment made during an interview, but this is between the two of them."
Khan said Pakistan was not yet prepared to say whether it was convinced by the evidence from the initial U.S. investigation into the terrorist action that destroyed New York's World Trade Center and gravely damaged the Pentagon.
"Until yesterday we had not received anything. How do you expect us to be convinced of anything if we were not given any particular material in terms of evidence? Now we have received some material and we are examining it."
Khan said Pakistan did not believe it must act as an intermediary between the U.S. and the Taliban:
"We are not playing that kind of a role. It is for the United States to be interacting or the Taliban to be interacting with the United States. So unless we are requested to do that we will not be playing that kind of role."
When the Taliban ambassador made his appeal for negotiations, he was in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, on the border with Afghanistan. The city is likely to be one of the places overrun by thousands of refugees if the U.S attacks Afghanistan.
Yesterday, around 50,000 people demonstrated in Quetta to protest the anticipated U.S. strikes and to condemn the Pakistani government for joining the coalition against terror.
The demonstrators claim the coalition is an anti-Islamic front and many of their religious leaders have threatened to launch a "jihad," or holy struggle, against the U.S. if there are attacks against Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has tried to downplay the internal opposition against the decision of the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf, to join the coalition against terror. Much of the Pakistani media failed to report on yesterday's demonstrations in Quetta, when scores of foreign journalists were locked in their hotels -- according to police, for their own safety. Other antigovernment demonstrations around the country have also gone largely unreported.
Khan denied that opposition to the government's alliance with the U.S. is increasing.
"The situation in the country is normal. Always in Pakistan there are processions, there are protests, there are all kinds of activities which continue. And judging from those standards we are used to, the country is calm, very normal. The overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan understand the position that has been taken by the government as a position taken in the best interests of the country."
But opponents of the pro-U.S. policy say the level of opposition is far higher than the 15 percent quoted by officials as the number of radical Muslims within Pakistan.