By Ted Anthony
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – As America tries to rally support among Arabs for military action in Afghanistan, Pakistan on Thursday became the first Muslim country to declare that U.S. evidence links Osama bin Laden to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In Afghanistan, Taliban radio said the ruling Islamic militia threatened to burn the houses of anyone supporting the involvement of the former Afghan king in the crisis and “drive them from the country.”
The Pakistani statement came as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was barnstorming through Muslim countries seeking support for the U.S. campaign to apprehend bin Laden and destroy his terrorist bases in Afghanistan.
Citing “the material we have seen and studied,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Riaz Khan said in a televised news conference, “This material certainly provides a sufficient basis for an indictment in a court of law.”
The strength of evidence is crucial to America’s credibility, especially in the Muslim world, as the Bush administration lays out its case for action against terrorists it says are responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Claiming lack of evidence, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia have refused to hand over bin Laden, who has lived in the country since 1996.
“We have been demanding evidence,” the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Thursday. “But it seems they are not willing to share whatever they have got.”
Faced with a possible American attack, Taliban officials have been meeting with local leaders across Afghanistan to build support, especially among influential tribal figures. During a meeting in the eastern Khost province, Taliban officials threatened to burn the homes of anyone supporting former king Mohammad Zaher Shah, the radio said. The exiled monarch has been meeting in Rome with opposition leaders to discuss ways to set up a new government if the Taliban fall.
Pakistan’s statement about evidence was the latest sign that the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is unwavering in its commitment to back the United States in its showdown with the Taliban, despite opposition from the country’s small but active Islamic political parties.
Pakistan was instrumental in the rise of the Taliban to power in 1996 and is the only country that still recognizes the militia as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
However, supporting Washington has enabled Pakistan to win international acceptance it lost after the 1998 explosion of a nuclear device and Musharraf’s military coup the following year. In a sign of newly won respectability, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to visit Friday.
During a speech Thursday in Britain, Blair revealed details of the case against bin Laden, saying three hijackers have been “positively identified” as associates of bin Laden and that bin Laden told other cohorts he was preparing a major operation in the United States.
One of the three also played a key role in the 1998 attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa and last year’s bombing of the USS Cole, Blair said.
With major Western powers on board, the United States has been campaigning hard to convince key Muslim states that any attack against the Taliban and bin Laden would not amount to a war against Islam or the Afghan people.
President Bush announced $320 million in humanitarian aid to the Afghan people “in a time of crisis and in a time of need.” Funds will be used to provide humanitarian aid delivered by the United Nations to Afghanistan and to camps in neighboring countries, which are expected to receive tens of thousands of refugees if the United States strikes.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon plans to airdrop relief supplies into Afghanistan was part of a broader U.S. government humanitarian aid effort.
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