Taliban say they know where bin Laden hiding; accused aid workers back on trial in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Under threat of U.S. military strikes, Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban rulers said explicitly for the first time Sunday that Osama bin Laden is still in the country and they know where his hide-out is.

But the president of Pakistan, which has been appealing to the Taliban to resolve the crisis with the United States, said hopes were "very dim" that the Taliban would surrender bin Laden. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar took a hard stance in a radio address Sunday, telling Afghans not to fear U.S. strikes, because "Americans don't have the courage to come here."

Meanwhile, fierce fighting was reported in the jagged mountains of northern Afghanistan. Rebel guerrillas said they had seized a district from Taliban troops, while the Taliban said at least a dozen opposition soldiers were killed and several hurt in a blast at a base north of Kabul.

In the Afghan capital, the trial of eight foreign aid workers charged with preaching Christianity resumed for the first time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. The top judge in the trial, Noor Mohammed Saqib, told the workers; who include two Americans; the threat of U.S. military action would not affect their case.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Taliban have given varying accounts of their dealings with bin Laden, the United StatesO top suspect in the attacks. U.S. officials say bin Laden, who has been sheltered in Afghanistan since 1996, presides over a terrorist network known as al-Qaida, or "the base."

Initially, the Afghan rulers said they didn't know where to find bin Laden. Then, last week, they said they had been able to deliver a message to him, a week-old request from the country's top clerics that he leave Afghanistan voluntarily.

On Sunday, the Afghan ambassador in neighboring Pakistan said bin Laden was hidden away for his own protection at a site inside Afghanistan known only to top Taliban security officials.

"He's in Afghanistan. He is under our control," the envoy, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told a journalists in Islamabad. "He's in a place which cannot be located by anyone."

Zaeef said the Taliban, who have rejected a series of appeals to hand over bin Laden and avert a military confrontation, were willing to talk.

"We are thinking of negotiation," he said, adding that if direct evidence against bin Laden were produced, "it might change things."

That met with a crisp rebuff from Washington. "The president has said we're not negotiating," White House chief of staff Andrew Card said on Fox News Sunday. Card said the Taliban had worked closely with bin Laden and "clearly it is not right."

"They cannot be a party to these terrorist acts and if they are going to continue to be a party to the terrorist acts, they should not be in power," Card said.

Omar, the Taliban leader, denied any role in the terrorist attacks and blamed them on unspecified U.S. policies in an interview with Taliban-run Kabul Radio. He repeatedly warned the United States to "think and think again" about attacking Afghanistan.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, told CNN that hopes that the Taliban will hand over bin Laden and accede to other U.S. demands are "very dim." Pakistani contacts have not succeeded "in moderating their views on the surrender of Osama bin Laden," he told CNN.

Pakistan has lent its backing to the United States in the confrontation over bin Laden, but outbursts of anti-American sentiment have the government worried. At a rally near the volatile border city of Peshawar on Monday, a prominent Pakistani cleric told hundreds of followers to kill any American they can find if Afghanistan comes under attack.

The threat of military confrontation has hung over the case of the eight foreign aid workers; two Americans, two Australians, and four Germans. Relatives of the workers followed the resumption of the trial Sunday from Pakistan.

Deborah Oddy, the mother of one of the Americans, said her daughter, Heather Mercer, had written a letter Sept. 25 asking that any U.S. retaliation wait until the workers had been freed. "All eight of us want to live," she wrote.

The Taliban also sent a special team to the northeastern city of Jalalabad to investigate a British journalist arrested Friday after sneaking into Afghanistan. The Afghan Islamic Press said the team wanted to determine if Yvonne Ridley, 43, a reporter for the Sunday Express of London, was a spy.

The Taliban, meanwhile, were cracking down on any of their own citizens thought to sympathize with the enemy.

Taliban authorities, in a statement distributed by the Afghan Islamic Press, said six men were arrested for distributing pamphlets supporting the United States and Afghanistan's exiled king; a crime that could be punishable by death. Top clerics from three provinces also issued an edict Sunday saying any Afghan believed to sympathize with the United States or the former king should be heavily fined and have their house burned down.

The United Nations this weekend began delivering its first shipments of food and other emergency humanitarian supplies since the Sept. 11 attacks. A convoy of trucks carrying more than 200 tons of wheat left Pakistan for Kabul on Sunday. Other supplies headed Saturday for opposition-controlled territory.

In the latest fighting in Afghanistan's north, the rebel alliance claimed it had captured the Taliban-controlled Qadis district in the northeast.

Alliance spokesman Mohammed Habil, reached by telephone, claimed 30 Taliban soldiers and their commander were captured, and another 120 Taliban troops had defected to the rebels.

Taliban radio, in turn, said at least 12 rebel soldiers died and several were wounded in an explosion at a military base in Baghram, 36 miles north of Kabul.

Neither side had any immediate comment on the other's claims.


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