Bush hints U.S. might strike soon

By Anne Kornblut

The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — President Bush warned that "time is running out" on the Taliban to avoid attack, and rejected an offer by the ruling Afghan militia Saturday to surrender jailed foreign-aid workers in exchange for immunity.

In some of his most ominous remarks since Sept. 11, Bush signaled that growing U.S. forces in the region might soon launch a strike, a point underscored as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned from a trip to the region. During his four-day visit, nearby countries agreed to give U.S. forces access to key staging areas near Afghanistan, clearing the way for an attack.

White House officials refused to comment on reports that skirmishes were already under way. Taliban leaders said their ground troops had fired antiaircraft artillery at two planes, missing both.

In his comments Saturday, Bush shifted the focus away from suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden in advance of expected military strikes on the regime harboring him. Some 30,000 U.S. troops are on alert in the region, the largest buildup since the Persian Gulf War a decade ago.

"The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations. Full warning has been given, and time is running out," Bush, who is spending the weekend at Camp David, said in his weekly radio address. "The United States is presenting a clear choice to every nation: Stand with the civilized world, or stand with the terrorists. And for those nations that stand with the terrorists, there will be a heavy price."

White House officials bluntly dismissed the Taliban offer to release eight aid workers, jailed since early August on charges of promoting Christianity, if the United States agreed to stop "its dire threats."

"The president has made it very clear from the beginning that the Taliban needs to release the aid workers, and that still stands," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. The imprisoned are two Americans, two Australians and four Germans.

Along with his threat to the Taliban, Bush repeated his promise to Afghan civilians that they are not the target, and suggested the United States would play a role in rebuilding the nation after a war. The administration has carefully distinguished between the civilian population and the ruling militia in hopes of isolating the Taliban, as well as garnering support from Arab nations.

"The Taliban promotes terror abroad, and practices terror against its people, oppressing women and persecuting all who dissent," Bush said. However, he said, "America respects the Afghan people, their long tradition and their proud independence. And we will help them in this time of confusion and crisis in their country."

In a 45-minute video conference with his national security team Saturday, Bush heard from Rumsfeld, who had just returned from his swing through Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Turkey. A White House official said that the president felt that Rumsfeld’s trip had been "very positive," and that his meetings had been "excellent."

That Bush dispatched Rumsfeld, instead of Secretary of State Colin Powell, underscored the administration’s increasing focus on a military reply to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., defense officials said.

Rumsfeld gained approval from Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, to station 1,000 combat troops in the former Soviet republic. Search-and-rescue and helicopter assault units from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., are deploying to the country, where they are expected to conduct humanitarian operations and support special forces units in Afghanistan.

Oman, a close Persian Gulf ally, offered the use of critical air bases in any attack and is already host to U.S. F-15 fighter jets and B-1 bombers. During Rumsfeld’s trip, the Pentagon announced plans to sell Oman arms valued at $1.1 billion, including the first sale of F-16s to that country.

In other developments Saturday:

  • Officials of the Northern Alliance, which is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, said they expect U.S. strikes in coming days and are poised to launch an attack against Taliban positions. The alliance, also known as the United Front, has been bolstered by recent deliveries of tanks and military hardware from Russia.

  • Leaders from the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada pledged to work together to boost growth in the global economy and intensify their efforts to choke off money flowing to terrorist organizations.

  • Pakistan’s military regime ordered 89 people working for Islamic relief agencies deported, a move apparently aimed at severing possible links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

  • British Prime Minster Tony Blair and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a stable government in Afghanistan that represents a "broad base of all ethnic groupings."

    The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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