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Bush again rebuffs Taliban

©Washington Post,
published October 15, 2001

WASHINGTON -- President Bush rejected an offer from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to turn over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to a neutral third country Sunday as an eighth day of bombing made clear that military coercion, not diplomacy, remains the crux of U.S. policy toward the regime.

"They must have not heard: There's no negotiations," Bush told reporters on the White House South Lawn after returning from Camp David. That brusque dismissal came on a day when Attorney General John Ashcroft warned in television appearances that nearly 200 people with potential links to the Sept. 11 attacks -- some of whom he believes are probably terrorists themselves -- remain at large in the United States.

Administration officials also said they have no solid evidence linking the discovery of small amounts of anthrax in three states to bin Laden's al-Qaida network. But Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said law enforcement authorities are acting on the assumption that anthrax-tainted letters were sent by someone with terrorist designs. "It certainly is an act of terrorism to send anthrax through the mail," he said on Fox News Sunday.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice sounded a more reassuring note. On CBS's 60 Minutes she dismissed speculation that terrorists may have a nuclear bomb. A defense official said last week that if the terrorists have obtained any nuclear material, they may be able to make a weapon that could spread radiation without an actual destructive explosion. "We have no credible evidence at this point of a specific threat of that kind," she said.

Bush's words were in response to remarks by Afghan Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir, who told reporters in Jalalabad that if the United States halts bombing, "then we could negotiate" turning bin Laden over to another country, so long as it was one that would not "come under pressure from the United States."

Bush has rebuffed similar offers in the past, and administration officials rejected the latest move as a desperation-driven delaying tactic. Bush repeated his stance that to halt the bombing, the Taliban regime must unconditionally "turn him (bin Laden) over. Turn his cohorts over. Turn any hostage they hold over. Destroy all the terrorist camps."

Drawing a line in colloquial terms, Bush added: "There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty. Turn him over. If they want us to stop our military operations, they just gotta meet my conditions, and when I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations."

Bush's reference to eight foreign aid workers held in Afghanistan was notable because until Sunday he had avoided calling them hostages, instead using language like "unjustly imprisoned." His decision to strip away euphemism suggested the rising intensity of the war on the Taliban.

U.S. warplanes continued to pound multiple targets in Afghanistan, setting the stage for what defense officials say could be helicopter assaults and Special Forces raids in the days ahead. Bombs fell during daylight hours on the southern city of Kandahar, headquarters of the country's ruling Taliban militia, and heavy bombing of the Afghan capital, Kabul, began as night fell. The Taliban also reported bombing in the cities of Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.

At the Pentagon, a spokesman said the raids were designed "to keep the pressure on over there. That's what we'll continue to do each day."

Defense officials had no comment on Taliban claims that U.S. bombing had killed 200 people in Karam, a village in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. Taliban representatives took foreign journalists to the village, marking the first time since the bombing began Oct. 7 that foreigners had been escorted into areas controlled by the Taliban. Enraged villagers surged toward the journalists upon their arrival in Karam, the Associated Press reported.

The latest shower of bombs destroyed Kabul's international telephone exchange, military officials said, eliminating one of the nation's last ways of communicating outside its borders.

With targets becoming scarce and diplomatic tensions increasing, the United States appeared to be entering what one Navy commander called a "cleanup mode" in the air campaign over Afghanistan.

The officer described the latest strikes as a cleanup of targets hit previously.

U.S. warplanes and U.S. and British cruise missiles have destroyed nearly all the targets assigned to them, the commander of the USS Enterprise told reporters Sunday. As part of the rules imposed by the Pentagon on coverage of this campaign, reporters on board the warship are not allowed to report his name.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said on ABC's This Week program Sunday that the United States was modulating its air campaign to avert a sudden sweeping victory by the Northern Alliance. Instead, Sattar said, the United States and Pakistan are working to develop a plan for a new ethnically mixed coalition to take over, one that would include Pashtun representation.

Meanwhile, an array of senior Bush administration officials were on the Sunday public affairs shows, most bearing messages bluntly underscoring the continued risks facing Americans more than a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ashcroft said on CBS's Face the Nation that authorities have arrested and detained 700 people to date, some of them with direct associations with the Sept. 11 hijackers, others with more tangential reasons for arousing suspicion or questions. But he added that about 190 people that authorities want to talk to have not been found -- and that some of those almost surely had terrorist designs.

"I believe that it is very unlikely that all of those individuals who were associated with or involved with the terrorism events of Sept. 11 and other terrorism events that may have been prepositioned and preplanned have been apprehended," he said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Rice took the lead in defending the administration on two sensitive points. One is that the United States is courting an anti-American backlash across the Muslim world with its attack on Afghanistan. Pleading for a sense of proportion, Rice said, "You're seeing thousands of people demonstrate in countries that have millions of people."

In addition, she said the administration's effort to replace the Taliban with a coalition government is not a reversal of Bush's stand against "nation building" that he sounded so often during his presidential campaign, when he accused the Clinton administration of foreign policy naivete.

"So, there's nothing wrong with nation building, but not when it's done by the American military," she said, implying that international organizations and diplomacy will be used to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. "And that's what the president was speaking to -- during the campaign and after."

Thousands of demonstrators fought police and soldiers Sunday near a Pakistani air base where U.S. troops are reportedly stationed. One protester was killed and 24 were wounded when police opened fire, officials in Islamabad said.

Police and paramilitary troops also fired tear gas to repel hundreds of demonstrators marching toward the base.

Preventing the war from destabilizing other countries in the region -- both in the near- and longer-term -- is Secretary of State Colin Powell's mission on a trip that began Sunday to Pakistan and India, where he hopes to bolster key U.S. allies in South Asia and to ease tensions between those two.

-- Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.

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