SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

Bin Laden scorns war on terror

ANIQ ZAFAR and FARAH ISPAHANI in Islamabad and AGENCIES in Washington

A defiant Osama bin Laden yesterday scoffed at global efforts to cripple his al-Qaeda network as a Pakistani delegation failed in its attempt to persuade Afghanistan's Taleban regime to hand him over to the US.
"The Taleban said clearly there was no question of handing over Osama bin Laden on moral or religious grounds," said Mufti Mohammad Jamil, a cleric who was part of a delegation that met Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in Kandahar.
Bin Laden, America's prime suspect in the September 11 attacks, derided global efforts to freeze the funding of al-Qaeda and said his jihad against the US would continue even if he were killed.
In an interview carried in Pakistan's Ummat newspaper yesterday, the exiled Saudi dissident issued a fresh denial of any involvement in the suicide plane attacks on New York and Washington, in which more than 6,000 people were killed.
"As a Muslim, I will not lie," bin Laden said in the Urdu-language daily. The paper said it had received written responses to its questions through contacts with the Taleban regime.
"I was neither aware of these attacks, nor would I support the killings of innocent men, women and children," bin Laden was quoted as saying.
Countries have frozen bank accounts allegedly linked to his al-Qaeda network and the 26 organisations the US has tied to it.
But bin Laden said: "It will not make any difference. By the grace of God, al-Qaeda has more than three different alternative financial networks . . . run around the world by thousands of highly educated youth."
He vowed that the holy war he declared in 1998 against "anti-Islamic" countries such as the US and Israel would survive his capture or even his death.
"Jihad will continue even if I am not around," he said, amid reports that US special forces had entered Afghanistan after the hijackings to hunt him down.
The 10-strong Pakistani team had travelled to Kandahar for what one official described as a "last ditch" bid to persuade the militia to back down to US pressure and surrender bin Laden. The delegation was composed mainly of Islamic clerics but also included military intelligence chief General Mahmood Ahmed, a powerful official with close links to Taleban leaders. Taleban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who accompanied the team, said the subject of bin Laden was out of bounds.
President George W. Bush yesterday maintained the US was "in hot pursuit" of the terrorists, while a top administration official said US forces had conducted scouting missions in Afghanistan.
The official said the work of US and British forces was a prelude to potential military action but denied that the forces, deployed in the last few days, were actively seeking bin Laden.
As he met Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office, Mr Bush said the US had learned from the Soviet Union's disastrous campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "It is very hard to fight a guerilla war with conventional forces. Sometimes people will be able to see what we do on the television. At other times, the American people won't be able to see. It will require the best of intelligence and the sharing of intelligence. There may or may not be a conventional component."
Also yesterday, a Taleban spokesman at its embassy in Islamabad, Sohail Shaheen, said the militia had sought a special meeting of the 54-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and had approached the United Nations to "investigate the matter and help in getting the culprits".
Pakistan is the only country that still recognises the Taleban. The militia's isolation was underlined yesterday when it emerged that one of its two former allies, Saudi Arabia, had agreed to let the US use state-of-the-art air-command facilities on its territory for military action.
"Saudi Arabia has no objection to the use of the facilities at Prince Sultan Air Base," a Gulf diplomat said. Senior US officials said Saudi Arabia had signalled it would permit US troops and aircraft on its soil.
In another sign of weakening support for the Afghan militia, pro-Taleban parties trying to rally opposition to Pakistan's support for possible US military action drew only small crowds, with the biggest a 5,000-strong march in the border city of Peshawar.