Afghanistan vows revenge if U.S. strikes it; leader says bin Laden not to blame

Friday, September 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia warned Friday of ``revenge'' if the United States attacks it for harboring Osama bin Laden, the main suspect in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

``If a country or group violates our country, we will not forget our revenge,'' Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Muttmain said from the militia's headquarters in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. He did not give details.

Speculation has been mounting that Washington may take military action against the Taliban as evidence grows that bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire, was behind the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Bin Laden has been living in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban since 1996. The Taliban are refusing to produce bin Laden unless Washington provides convincing evidence of guilt.

On Friday, the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said U.S. investigators were trying to link bin Laden to this week's attacks ``unjustifiably and without any reason.''

In a statement read aloud by the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan on Friday, Omar said the attacks themselves point to bin Laden's innocence ``because Osama has no pilots'' and because there is no pilot training in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have said the some of the hijackers were trained as pilots in the United States.

Anyone singling out bin Laden is trying ``to add to his (own) reputation,'' Omar said.

Meanwhile, Pakistani military sources said Friday that Omar had been moved to a new hide-out in Afghanistan. Omar normally is believed to live in secret locations in Kandahar, where Pakistani sources said the militants have reinforced security.

Pakistan, which has been Taliban's closest ally, is believed to have the best intelligence on Afghanistan and the militant militia.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf faces a tough decision. He can promise full cooperation with Washington in its hunt for the terrorists and risk the wrath of Muslim fundamentalists at home, or refuse to cooperate and infuriate Washington.

The Taliban face a similar dilemma. If they hand over bin Laden, they risk angering thousands of foreign fighters who are indispensable in their war against a northern-based alliance. If they continue to harbor bin Laden, they risk a full-scale attack by the world's most powerful army.

The United Nations and many international aid organizations have withdrawn their foreign workers from Afghanistan, fearing an attack. Foreigners have been ordered to leave and the Taliban have stopped issuing visas to foreigners.

Amid the growing fears of a U.S. attack, war-weary Afghans resigned themselves Friday to the possibility of more bloodshed. Since the 1970s, the country has been wracked by successive disasters: a Soviet invasion, civil war, the rise of the radical Taliban, a devastating drought and famine.

``We have suffered so much. Every night so many children go to bed hungry,'' said Zalmai, a teacher who like many Afghans uses only one name. ``What do we have to live for? Let the rockets come and set this whole country on fire once and for all.''

Some Afghans expressed the kind of rage that may have led to the terror attacks in the first place.

``Any enemy of the Muslims will be punished by God,'' said Imam Mohammed Muslim Haqqani during Friday prayers at a mosque in the Afghan capital of Kabul. ``The United States and Israel are enemies of Islam.''

Such sentiments were also common in neighboring Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalists enjoy widespread popularity.

``Allah intensified the fire and destruction of those planes,'' said prayer leader Maulana Abdul Aziz at a mosque in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, explaining why two hijacked planes were able to turn New York's World Trade Center into rubble Tuesday.

In the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, several hundred people emerged from a mosque shouting ``jehad!'' or holy war, and shouted pro-Afghanistan slogans.