KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ The leader of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement said Wednesday his officials were willing to meet with the United States but accused Washington of unfairly vilifying terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.
Mullah Mohammed Omar addressed his comments to hundreds of Islamic clerics who met here Wednesday at the Taliban's request to decide the fate of bin Laden and whether to call on Muslims here and abroad to wage holy war against the United States if it attacks Afghanistan.
Despite urgings by Omar that it complete its work, the council of clerics broke up late Wednesday without any agreement. It was to resume its meeting the next day, said Qadratullah Jamal, Taliban's culture and information minister.
In a speech read to the gathering in the war-shattered Presidential Palace, Omar denounced Washington's portrayal of bin Laden's alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and its refusal to produce evidence. He called the U.S. actions an effort to harm the Taliban, according to the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based Afghan news agency with close ties to the Taliban.
``Osama has denied his involvement. It is unfortunate that America does not listen to us and levels all sorts of charges and threatens military action,'' Omar said in the speech.
``We have held talks in ... the past with U.S. governments several times, and we are ready for more talks,'' he said.
But he said: ``If America still wants to attack us ... and to destroy the Islamic government of Afghanistan, we want to get the religious decision from you, our respected religious scholars.''
The Bush administration rejected the Taliban offer for talks.
``The president has made it clear it's time for actions not negotiations with the Taliban,'' said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
As the closed-door meeting got under way in Kabul, dozens of turbaned Taliban soldiers armed with rocket-launchers and Kalashnikov rifles stood guard outside the giant cement walls that surround the palace, lined with gaping holes from years of fighting in Kabul. Omar, who is believed to have final decision-making power, did not attend, remaining at the Taliban headquarters in Kandahar.
Bin Laden, a Saudi exile living in Afghanistan since 1996, is the main suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Pakistan officials met with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan earlier this week to discuss the U.S. demand to hand him over but they returned home with no agreement. But they said the Taliban were considering the possibility of extraditing bin Laden to a country other than the United States under certain conditions _ particularly recognition of their government and an end to U.N. sanctions.
As many as 1,000 clerics from across the country, some driving hundreds of miles along dirt roads, traveled to the capital to help the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan decide its next step.
Taliban, an Islamic militia that rules most of the country, is only formally recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The militia has been put under economic sanctions twice by the United Nations to press earlier U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden for trial.
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.
The Taliban, which condemned last week's terror attacks in the United States, have consistently refused to extradite bin Laden, calling him a ``guest'' and saying that to hand him over to non-Muslims would betray a tenet of Islam.
On Monday, the Taliban said that God would protect them if the world tried to ``set fire'' to Afghanistan for sheltering bin Laden. A Taliban broadcast Tuesday also called on all Muslims to wage holy war on America if it attacks the poor and war-ravaged central Asian country.
Since taking control of most of Afghanistan, the Taliban have declared holy wars against the northern-based, anti-Taliban alliance, Russia and Iran, but never the United States.