ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ After days of saying it couldn't locate Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan's Taliban government said Thursday it had delivered a week-old message to America's prime suspect in the terror attacks on New York and Washington, asking him to leave the country voluntarily.
The nation's top clerics recommended Sept. 20 that bin Laden be asked to leave Afghanistan, where he has sheltered for the past five years. The United States says he has used Afghanistan as his headquarters for a far-flung, loosely linked international terror network known as al-Qaida, or ``the base.''
President Bush has demanded the Taliban surrender bin Laden or share his fate, raising expectations of an American-led military action against Afghanistan, though none has yet materialized.
``Osama has now received the (clerics') recommendations'' that he depart Afghanistan, the Taliban's ambassador in neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Thursday. It marked the first time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks that the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic movement that rules Afghanistan, indicated they knew bin Laden's location or how to communicate with him.
As the confrontation over bin Laden has hardened, fears have grown over the safety of eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, accused last month of preaching Christianity in Afghanistan. On Thursday, diplomats were notified that their trial, halted in the wake of the terror strikes, would resume Saturday.
John Mercer, the father of American defendant Heather Mercer, said the planned resumption was an ``encouraging'' development. The aid workers' Pakistani lawyer Asif Ali, who is schooled in sharia, or Islamic law, said he would ``do my best to defend the accused.''
The eight _ two Americans, four Germans, and two Australians _ are employed by German-based Shelter Now International, a Christian aid organization. They were arrested along with 16 Afghan workers on charges of proselytizing, a serious offense in a country under Islamic rule.
While the United States has sought to marshal support for a coalition targeting bin Laden, new attention has focused on a ragtag opposition alliance that has struggled for years to wrest key territory from Taliban troops.
The anti-government guerrillas have reported no major battlefield gains, but in the rugged valleys of northern Afghanistan, fighting has grown fiercer in recent days. One forward patrol, accompanied by an Associated Press Television News crew, pushed to within four miles of Kabul before falling back, exchanging fire with Taliban fighters.
The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, warned the rebels not to look to the United States to help them topple his government.
``Those Afghans who want to seize power with the help of America are just like those fools who tried to stay in power with the help of the Russian army,'' he said in a message distributed Thursday by the Afghan Islamic Press. ``If America interferes in Afghanistan, then it will be no different from Russia.''
Even while it keeps up fiery calls for a jihad, or holy war, if America attacks, the Taliban opened the door Thursday to the possibility of outside mediation, saying they would be willing to receive civil rights leader Jesse Jackson as an envoy.
Jackson said he was invited by the Taliban; the Taliban said it was Jackson who approached them, but they were willing to accept his offer to ``mediate between the Taliban and America.''
In any event, Bush administration officials indicated they would discourage such a trip. And Francesc Vendrell, head of the U.N. special mission for Afghanistan, told reporters in Islamabad: ``I'm afraid that when it comes to the issue of bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, the time for negotiations with the Taliban on this issue is past.''
In Pakistan, the only country that recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers, the government's decision to side with the United States has drawn angry protests, mainly organized by hard-line Islamic parties in Pakistan.
On Thursday, pro-government rallies were staged in several cities, but they were considerably smaller than anti-government rallies have been, and many demonstrators were students who were let out of school to take part. The foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, addressed the Islamabad gathering, telling the crowd the quarrel was not with the Afghan people.
In a new sign of opposition to the government's stance, six prominent Islamic scholars in the border city of Peshawar issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying jihad is the duty of every Muslim if the United States attacks Afghanistan.
``Anybody who dies in the war on the American side will not go to heaven,'' the ruling said. ``But any Muslim who dies on the side of Afghanistan will die as a martyr and go to paradise.''
Inside Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis is in the making. The United Nations has warned of dwindling food stocks after political turmoil and a crippling drought, and the start of the harsh Afghan winter is only six weeks away.
Several planeloads of food were to be flown over the next few days to Afghanistan's neighbors in preparation for an expected flood of refugees who manage to make it across the porous borders, U.N. officials said Thursday.
Kabul radio denied reports of food shortages in the capital and major provinces. A broadcast monitored Thursday in Islamabad quoted senior municipal officials as saying there was enough food in markets and assuring residents ``we have sufficient stocks available in Kabul and other provinces.''