Afghanistan's ruling Taliban on Wednesday vowed they would never hand over suspected terror mastermind Usama bin Laden, insisting Tuesday's convictions of four men for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings were "unfair."
"We won't hand him over to America under any circumstances. It is our stated policy," said Abdul Anan Himat, a senior official at the Taliban information ministry.
"He is a great holy warrior of Islam and a great benefactor of the Afghan people," Himat said of bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire-dissident who remains in hiding in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's declaration came the day after a New York jury convicted four of bin Laden's followers of a global conspiracy to murder Americans — a conspiracy that was carried out in the twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The explosions killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands of others.
The United Nations has imposed stiff sanctions on the Taliban — a fundamentalist Islamic militia that controls 95 percent of Afghanistan — for their refusal to hand over bin Laden either to the United States or a third country for trial.
The United States accuses bin Laden of running a global terrorist network, including military training camps from his safe haven in Afghanistan — a charge both the Taliban and bin Laden deny.
But bin Laden is active from his hiding spot. In a statement read aloud last month at a convention of 200,000 students from Muslim nations, he urged hard-line Islamic activists to prepare the next generation for jihad, or holy war.
"Issue a call to the young generation to get ready for the holy war and to prepare for that in Afghanistan, because jihad in this time of crisis for Muslims is an obligation of all Muslims," he said.
The Taliban have long said they won't hand bin Laden over because the United States has no evidence proving his links to terrorism and that giving him to a non-Muslim country for trial would violate the tenets of Islam.
"America is using the issues of terrorism, drugs and human rights as an excuse against Afghanistan," Himat said.
But some in the leadership have hinted at flexibility — and there has been speculation the Taliban may be willing to hand over bin Laden to a third country if he could be guaranteed a trial under Islamic law.
Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, second in command at the Taliban's embassy in Pakistan, told the Associated Press last week that "we want a solution to the Usama issue, but the dignity of both Afghanistan and America must be taken into account."
Washington has been pressing Pakistan, considered the Taliban government's staunchest ally, to use its influence to secure bin Laden's surrender.
Gen. Rashid Quereshi, chief spokesman for Pakistan's military ruler, told the AP this week that his government is trying to "engage" the Taliban to persuade them not to provide refuge to accused terrorists or allow training camps in Afghanistan.
"We told them that all this will get you nowhere, that it will damage not only your international image but also your being viewed as rational beings," Quereshi said. But he criticized U.N. sanctions, saying they deprive the United States of any leverage with the Taliban.
Bin Laden came to prominence fighting alongside the U.S.-supported Afghan 'mujahedeen' in their war against Soviet troops in the 1980s. He then began campaigning against U.S. influence in Saudi Arabia. That campaign outraged the government, which stripped him of his Saudi nationality. His family — which owns one of the biggest construction companies in the Middle East, among other businesses — disowned him.The Associated Press contributed to this report