Taliban Give Bin Laden Free Rein After U.S. Raids

By Sayed Salahuddin and Anton Ferreira KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban gave Osama bin Laden free rein to wage holy war on the United States on Wednesday as Washington said its war planes had the run of the Afghan skies.

Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen said the activities of bin Laden -- the man Washington accuses of masterminding the September 11 suicide hijack attacks on the United States -- were no longer restricted following this week's U.S.-led air strikes. ``With the start of the American attacks, these restrictions are no longer in place,'' Mutmaen told the BBC. ``Jihad is an obligation on all Muslims of the world. We want this, bin Laden wants this and America will face the unpleasant consequences.''

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, told a news conference later that America would not be safe while it attacked Afghanistan.

``As long as America is shedding the blood of Afghans it will not be beneficial to America,'' Zaeef said. ``If America is continuing attacks on Afghanistan it will also not be safe.''

A spokesman for bin Laden's al Qaeda network said in a video broadcast earlier by an Arabic television network that Americans could expect a repeat of the September attacks.

With the U.S. military proclaiming supremacy in the skies over Afghanistan after three days of mainly night air and missile strikes, President Bush vowed justice would be done for the attacks on New York and Washington.

``There's one way to shorten the campaign in Afghanistan and that's for Osama bin Laden and his leadership to be turned over so he can be brought to justice,'' Bush said on Tuesday after talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. ``If it takes one day, one month, one year, or one decade, we're patient enough,'' he added.

Against a background of sporadic protests by radicals across the Islamic world, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped up a diplomatic push to win Muslim support for efforts to flush out Saudi-born bin Laden, who is living in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.

Blair, Bush's staunchest ally in his war on terrorism, arrived in the Gulf to try to win over skeptical Arab opinion -- a trip coinciding with a meeting of Islamic nations in Qatar.


Secretary of State Colin Powell would make a similar trip to Pakistan, India and China, officials said. Blair earlier told the Afghan people the West would not abandon them after the war on the Taliban had been completed.

The United States, which staged daylight raids on Tuesday and Wednesday, says the bombing and missile raids it began on Sunday had shattered Taliban air defenses and military communications. ``We believe we are now able to carry out strikes more or less around the clock as we wish,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

The latest raids hit the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar in the Taliban heartland, among other targets. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said their spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and bin Laden were alive and well. He rejected suggestions that their air defenses had been neutralized, saying that U.S. planes were simply out of range. Taliban officials said that a U.S. cruise missile hit a residential area in Kabul's eastern outskirts overnight. There was no independent confirmation. In Kabul itself, residents tried to go about their normal business but there was an undercurrent of anger. ``We are unhappy about the attacks,'' said a shoeshine boy. ``We have not slept for the past three nights because of fear of the attacks.''

The opposition Northern Alliance appeared to be trying to take advantage of the raids. It said it had seized control of the only remaining north-south highway after persuading 40 Taliban commanders and their 1,200 fighters to switch sides.

The raids have triggered protests by Muslim radicals in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan and parts of the Middle East -- where the issue has split Palestinians.

Around 1,000 students held a rowdy protest outside Indonesia's parliament on Wednesday, with some trying to knock down the gate leading into the complex in the biggest anti-American demonstration in the capital Jakarta this week.

Students danced around a burning effigy of Bush. ''America-America the terrorist!'' students screamed. But Islamic reaction, on the whole, has been muted. Islamic nations meeting in Qatar on Wednesday were expected to voice concern that the U.S.-led raids against Afghanistan could extend to other Muslim countries. TALIBAN DEFIANCE

But delegates say the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, is unlikely to condemn the campaign against the Taliban.

A spokesman for bin Laden's al Qaeda network, which has described Bush's war on terrorism as a crusade against Islam, said the group believed in ``terrorism against oppressors.''

``Let America know that this battle will not leave its land until it exits our land, and until they stop supporting the Jews and lift the unjust sanctions on Iraq,'' Sulaiman Bu Ghaith said in a message carried on Qatar's al-Jazeera satellite television. ``In the (Muslim) nation there are thousands of youths who are as keen on death as Americans are keen on life.''

Police in Italy and Germany arrested three suspected Islamic militants believed to be linked to bin Laden, Italian judicial officials said. Police were seeking a fourth suspect in France as part of a three-nation coordinated swoop.

Americans took precautions to counter germ warfare after one man died in Florida from anthrax and a second case was diagnosed. Several hundred people in Florida's coastal city of Boca Raton who may have come in contact with the dead man were tested for contamination. An FBI spokeswoman said it was too early to tell if the anthrax bacteria had been released intentionally. Bush, seeking to calm such fears, urged Americans to continue their normal lives. ``The American people should know that our government is doing everything we can to make our country as safe as possible,'' he said.

The world's financial markets watched and waited. In Asia, deep-seated uncertainty over Afghanistan sent most major bourses lower. The dollar was pinned within recent ranges, oil marked time and gold steadied after overnight losses.

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