Jackson might lead delegation to meet with Taliban because Americans are being held

Thursday, September 27th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Jesse Jackson said Thursday he was considering whether to accept an invitation from the ruling militia in Afghanistan to take a ``peace delegation'' to neighboring Pakistan. The White House was urging him not to go and the Taliban said it had not asked him to.

Jackson, indicating he may try to help free two U.S. relief workers, said he had talked Thursday to the parents of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, who are being held by the ruling Taliban in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

``There is nothing to be gained by holding them as trophies of this war,'' Jackson said on CBS' ``The Early Show.''

The minister and former presidential candidate said he received an invitation Wednesday from a Taliban spokesman and immediately notified Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan was quoted as saying Thursday that Jackson had initiated the offer, not the militia. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ``has accepted his offer to mediate between the Taliban and America, and we will provide him our best possible facilities to visit Afghanistan,'' the ambassador, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in a statement issued by the Afghan Islamic Press, a private news agency close to the Taliban.

Several administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush advisers planned to urge Jackson on Thursday not to make the trip because they feared it would be viewed as a U.S. attempt to negotiate with the terrorist-harboring Taliban regime.

Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, was asked on NBC's ``Today'' whether he would encourage Jackson to make the trip. ``I personally wouldn't,'' Armitage replied. ``It seems to me they (the militia) are trying to delay making a decision on their own. Secretary Powell informed the Rev. Jackson that the demands laid on the Taliban by our president are not negotiable.''

Bush has demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden, who is the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States, and other terrorists.

Jackson said Wednesday: ``We must weigh what this invitation means. We're not going to be precipitous. If we can do something to encourage them to dismantle those terrorist bases, to choose to hand over the suspects and release the Christians rather than engage in a long bloody war, we'll encourage them to do so.''

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer repeated that there will be no negotiations or discussions with the Taliban.

``Either the Taliban government is going to stand alone and take on this world pressure, or they are going to look for some graceful way out,'' Jackson said. ``I hope that appealing to a peace delegation could be a bridge.''

``We would like to see this situation resolved in a way that preserves the dignity and integrity of all sides ... in the interest of avoiding the humanitarian catastrophe that would befall the people of Afghanistan as a result of military strikes,'' Jackson quoted the Taliban invitation as saying.

Jackson has undertaken several missions to win the release of American hostages overseas. In 1999 he secured the release of three American soldiers captured by Serbs in Yugoslavia.

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