KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ The hard-line Taliban said God would protect it if the world tried to ``set fire'' to Afghanistan for sheltering terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, and in comments broadcast Tuesday also called on all Muslims to wage holy war on America if it attacks.
Hundreds of Islamic clerics were gathering in the Afghan capital to discuss conditions for extraditing bin Laden to a country other than the United States, a Pakistan government official said. The clerics are expected to meet Wednesday, said Hamdullah Nomani, the mayor of Kabul and host of the gathering.
The conditions, including international recognition of the Taliban government and the lifting of U.N. sanctions, were discussed Monday in Kandahar, headquarters of the Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan, the Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
It seemed unlikely the United States would agree to have bin Laden extradited to another country. A delegation sent by Pakistan to try to convince the Taliban to hand over bin Laden went home Tuesday without reaching an agreement, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf scheduled a televised address to his people on Wednesday evening.
Before leaving Kabul, the Pakistani delegation met with eight detained aid workers being tried on charges of illegally preaching Christianity, the official said. Pakistan asked the Taliban to release the aid workers _ two Americans, four Germans and two Australians _ and the rulers promised to consider the request, he said.
The Taliban, who say bin Laden was wrongly implicated in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, urged the people of Afghanistan to prepare for a jihad, or holy war, against America, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported Tuesday.
``If America attacks our homes, it is necessary for all Muslims, especially for Afghans, to wage a holy war,'' Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund, the deputy Taliban leader, said Monday, according to state-run Radio Shariat. ``God is on our side, and if the world's people try to set fire to Afghanistan, God will protect us and help us.''
Since taking control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, the Taliban have declared holy wars against the northern-based anti-Taliban alliance, Russia and Iran, but never the United States.
The Taliban government is only officially recognized by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Taliban's foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, condemned the violence within hours of the attacks in New York and Washington but said it would have been impossible for bin Laden to carry out the assaults. Bin Laden lacks the facilities for such an elaborate operation, he said.
Since then, the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has declared himself head of all Muslims, has defended bin Laden and accused the United States of pointing the finger in his direction because its investigators have been unable to come up with a real suspect.
Many Pakistanis living along the 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan promised to join the jihad against America, and possibly their own government, if there are retaliatory strikes.
``America is putting a gun on Pakistan's shoulder to fire at Afghanistan. The Pakistani people cannot accept this,'' said Haji Abdul Razzaq, a mechanic in the western city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border.
On Tuesday, some 3,000 people in the Pakistani city of Karachi demonstrated near a mosque that runs a religious school many Taliban leaders attended, warning of more attacks. Many carried posters of bin Laden portrayed as a hero.
``Until now, only one World Trade Center has been destroyed,'' demonstrators shouted in unison in English. ``But we will destroy all of America. We will die for Taliban. We will die for Islam. We will die for Osama.''
Bin Laden and his alleged network of Islamic militants are the prime suspects in last week's airborne assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The United States believes bin Laden has played a role in a number of devastating attacks, including the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in which 231 people were killed.
Bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship and has been living in Afghanistan since 1996, is accused by Washington of running a global terrorist network from his bases inside the war-ruined Central Asian nation.
The Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia that rules according to a strict interpretation of the Quran, have been placed under economic sanctions twice by the United Nations to press earlier U.S. demand to hand over bin Laden for trial.
The Taliban have consistently refused, calling bin Laden a ``guest'' and saying that to hand him over to non-Muslims would betray a tenet of Islam.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said Tuesday that the U.S. government has authorized its nonessential embassy staff members and their families to evacuate Pakistan amid fears of possible violence and terrorist strikes against Americans. Several multinational companies also have evacuated their international staff.
However, the U.S. Embassy and its consulates in Pakistan, an Islamic nation of 140 million people, were to continue their normal operations.