Afghanistan offers to free aid workers if U.S. stops `propaganda campaign

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Taliban gunners in Afghanistan's capital unleashed a thunderous barrage at a plane cruising high over Kabul on Saturday as President Bush delivered a stern warning that ``time is running out'' for the regime to hand over Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban, meanwhile, defiantly repeated their vow to wage holy war against America and even threatened to invade neighboring Uzbekistan if that country participated in any U.S.-led attack.

However, the shrill rhetoric appeared to mask a sense of desperation as the Taliban searched for a way out of the crisis. The regime offered to release eight aid workers, including two Americans, if Washington stopped its threats and began negotiations.

The White House rejected the offer, and spokeswoman Claire Buchan called on the Taliban to release the aid workers immediately.

Afghan authorities also announced they would unconditionally release British journalist Yvonne Ridley, 43, who was arrested last month inside Afghanistan with two Afghan guides. British officials expected her release within days.

Early Saturday afternoon, residents of the Afghan capital rushed into the streets when Taliban gunners fired anti-aircraft guns and two missiles at a lone, silver-colored aircraft whose jet trail was visible in the bright blue sky.

The gunners missed their mark, and Taliban authorities admitted the plane's altitude was beyond the range of their air defenses. Afghanistan's airspace is closed to all traffic, and the Taliban said the aircraft was a spy plane.

Kabul residents, inured to the sounds of war after more than 20 years of conflict, showed no sign of panic once they realized the city was not under attack.

``Who cares about the attack,'' mechanic Najibullah said while staring toward the sky along with his three children. ``We have seen so much fighting now no one is afraid of death.''

Last month, the Taliban said it shot down a spy plane over northern Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged the United States had lost contact with an unmanned reconnaissance plane but had no reason to believe it was shot down.

The United States is massing formidable military forces around Afghanistan to press its demand that the Islamic militia hand over bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Washington has also been putting together a global coalition against terrorism. On Saturday, the world's major industrial powers pledged to intensify their efforts to choke off money flowing to terrorist organizations.

Finance ministers and central bank presidents from the Group of Seven, meeting in Washington, also said they would work together to boost growth in a global economy badly shaken by the Sept. 11 attacks.

``We stand united in our commitment to vigorously track down and intercept the assets of terrorists and to pursue the individuals and countries suspected of financing terrorists,'' the G7 nations - the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada - said in a joint statement.

Taliban authorities have refused to give up bin Laden but have offered to negotiate with the United States. After repeated American refusals to bargain, the Taliban offered Saturday to free the Christian aid workers - two Americans, two Australians and four Germans - if Washington stopped threatening war.

``Because of American threats, people are being forced to flee their homes, along with their children and women and old people,'' the Taliban said. ``Are their lives not important?''

The eight were arrested in August on charges of preaching Christianity - a serious charge in this strictly Muslim country. Sixteen Afghan employees of the German-based Shelter Now International organization were also arrested.

The Bush administration is in no mood for compromise.

``The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations,'' Bush said Saturday in a radio address. ``Full warning has been given and time is running out.''

The Taliban have appealed to Muslims worldwide to join a jihad, or holy war, if the United States launches attacks. In the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, several thousand people shouted anti-American and anti-British slogans Saturday during a noisy four-hour rally in support of the Taliban and bin Laden.

``Whatever we do, we will never hand over Osama,'' said Hizbullah, a 16-year-old religious student in Peshawar. ``If Americans attack Afghanistan, nothing would make me happier than to kill them. If I saw one after that had happened, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.''

On Saturday night, Taliban radio broadcast poems whose lyrics condemned America. There was no accompanying music, which the Taliban have banned.

Neighboring governments have all denounced the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Pakistan, once the Taliban's ally, has pledged full support for the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. Uzbekistan has agreed to let the United States station troops on its soil but not to launch offensive operations.

On Saturday, a U.S.-marked aircraft arrived in Uzbekistan one day after President Islam Karimov granted permission for the United States to use an Uzbek air base. A local police officer, who refused to be quoted by name, said three or four planes had already landed.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner refused to comment on the report, in keeping with U.S. policy of not discussing troop movements.

A senior Taliban figure, Amir Khan Muttaqi, said that 10,000 soldiers had been rushed to the Afghan border with Uzbekistan and that Taliban forces would cross into Uzbekistan if that Muslim country cooperated in any U.S.-led attack.

The Taliban is already fighting a coalition of opposition forces in northern Afghanistan. Its foes had been making little headway against the larger and better-armed Taliban, but their fortunes have been bolstered since the Sept. 11 attacks with a decision by Russia to step up weapons shipments.

Opposition spokesman Mohammad Ashraf Nadim claimed the alliance gained ground Saturday in fighting in the northern provinces of Balkh and Samaghan, which border Uzbekistan. The claims could not be independently verified.


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