SCMP Friday, October 5, 2001

Blair spells out bin Laden's guilt

AGENCIES in London, Islamabad and Muscat

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday became the first Western leader to outline publicly the "absolute" evidence against Osama bin Laden over the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Before flying to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin on the US-led war against terrorism, Mr Blair warned a special sitting of the House of Commons: "We are now approaching the difficult time when action is taken."
Mr Blair said the evidence was clear-cut: bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network had planned and carried out the atrocities that killed about 5,700 people in the US and had been able to do so because of the support of Afghanistan's ruling Taleban. Mr Blair said bin Laden had warned his associates shortly before September 11 he was planning a "major operation" against America.
"One of bin Laden's closest lieutenants has said clearly that he helped with the planning of the attacks and has admitted the involvement of the al-Qaeda organisation," Mr Blair said.
At least three of the 19 suicide hijackers had been "positively identified" as known associates of bin Laden. Moreover, one of them had played a key role in the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in 1998, which left 224 people dead, and an attack on the warship USS Cole in Yemen last year that killed 17 seamen, the Prime Minister said.
Other "more direct" evidence against bin Laden could not be disclosed because it came from sensitive sources.
The Prime Minister later arrived in Moscow and headed straight into talks with Mr Putin. Mr Blair will also visit Islamabad, according to Pakistani officials.
Hours before Mr Blair spoke, the Taleban hardened its position. Its Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said it would not hand over bin Laden even if the US proved his involvement. "If we receive such proof, bin Laden will be tried under Islamic law and if he is guilty we will examine what to do," he said.
Pakistan, the last country still to recognise the Taleban, yesterday accepted bin Laden's guilt. A day after President Pervez Musharraf was shown America's evidence, Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan said: "This provides sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law."
Islamabad's announcement will bolster US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on his tour of the Middle East. Mr Rumsfeld began in Riyadh where he had talks with King Fahd and other Saudi leaders on Wednesday, then flew to Oman yesterday for a meeting with Sultan Qaboos before leaving for Cairo to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr Rumsfeld said the US military was planning air drops of supplies to refugees in Afghanistan, part of a US$320 million (HK$2.5 billion) humanitarian aid package announced yesterday by US President George W. Bush.