The Washington Post

Paul Wong
Pro-Taliban protesters burn an effigy of President Bush and chant slogans during an anti-American protest Sunday in Karachi, Pakistan. The rally was in protest of the possible U.S. military strikes on neighboring Afghanistan. <br><br>AP PHOTO

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Afghanistan”s sole ambassador to the outside world said yesterday that alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden is being sheltered in a secret location in Afghanistan by the country”s ruling Taliban militia, which has had knowledge and control of his actions for more than two years.

In an interview with a small group of foreign reporters, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, acknowledged for the first time a direct link between the Taliban and bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“He has been in the control of our forces,” Zaeef said, speaking through an interpreter. He said bin Laden was “under the security” of the Taliban and that “any action that he makes has to go through the knowledge of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Zaeef said the relationship between his government and bin Laden “has been like this for more than two years now.” He disputed reports that bin Laden had gone missing in recent weeks.

U.S. officials have long insisted that there were strong connections between the Taliban and bin Laden”s al Qaeda terrorist organization. Bin Laden, who has been stripped of his Saudi citizenship and exiled from Sudan, provided thousands of fighters and tens of millions of dollars to the Taliban in exchange for a safe haven in Afghanistan, according to Western intelligence sources.

Both bin Laden and Taliban officials have denied responsibility for the attacks in the United States. But U.S. officials have said they have assembled evidence which they have not publicly detailed implicating bin Laden. In an interview with the BBC yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he has seen “absolutely powerful and incontrovertible evidence” linking bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Zaeef”s acknowledgment could assist the Bush administration in building international support, particularly among Arab countries, for a broad anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan that targets not just bin Laden but the Taliban. Although the Taliban has few friends outside Afghanistan, some Islamic countries have been reluctant to support military action against the regime.

President Bush has warned the Taliban that if it does not surrender bin Laden and other alleged terrorists in Afghanistan, it will “share in their fate.” The Taliban has been unmoved by the threat, though Zaeef said Sunday that his government would be open to negotiations with the United States if it provided evidence that bin Laden was involved in the attacks.

“The position of the two countries is very different,” he said in an earlier meeting with reporters Sunday. “They are thinking of direct attacks. We are thinking of negotiation.”

Zaeef said if the United States talked to the Taliban and produced evidence, “we will respect their negotiations and that might change things.”

U.S. officials have said they will not negotiate for the surrender of bin Laden, who has been indicted in connection with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 that killed 224 people.

Although Zaeef, the Taliban”s senior-most official outside Afghanistan, is believed to be close to the Taliban leadership, it was unclear whether his offer to negotiate represented a shift in his government”s policy. Two Pakistani delegations have traveled to Afghanistan in the past two weeks in efforts to persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. Both overtures were rejected by the supreme Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar.

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