ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Usama bin Laden is being hidden for his own "safety and security" inside Afghanistan, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan told a group of reporters Sunday.
"He is in Afghanistan. He is under our control," said Ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, speaking in Pashto in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. "Wherever he is, he is in a secret place, but that does not mean that he is out of the control of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He is in a place which cannot be located by anyone."
Zaeef's interpreter added that "only security people know where [bin Laden] is."
The ambassador reiterated that the Taliban would be willing to negotiate for bin Laden's extradition if the U.S. provided evidence for his culpability in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., that killed nearly 7,000 people.
"The position of the two countries is very different," he said. "They are thinking of direct attack. We are thinking of negotiation. They have provided no evidence but they want the man. But we say if they change and talk to us, and if they present evidence, we will respect their negotiations and that might change things."
"If they attack without any evidence or unless this case goes through the proper court process," Zaeef added, "any attack will be a terrorist attack. We condemn terrorist attacks throughout the world."
Previously, the ruling Islamic hard-liners had claimed only that they were in contact with bin Laden, and had delivered a message from the country's clergy, the ulema, asking him to leave voluntarily. Zaeef restated the latter assertion.
"The ulema recommendation was handed to him...it has reached him," said Zaeef. "There has been no response."
Some officials in Pakistan immediately saw Zaeef's claims, which could not be immediately confirmed, as either a challenge or an invitation for the United States to open discussions about bin Laden's fate.
"This could be a dare, a signal for the United States to come and get him if they can," one Western official said here. "Or it could be a sign that they want to negotiate. We cannot be sure."
The former interpretation was bolstered by a Kabul Radio broadcast Sunday night in which Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, told his people not to worry about U.S. attacks on their country because Americans are cowards.
"Americans don't have the courage to come here," Omar said, warning the United States to "think and think again" about attacking Afghanistan, which drove out Soviet invaders with U.S. assistance in a 1979-1989 war.
"If you attack us, there will be no difference between you and the Russians," Omar said, adding that "whatever the Americans are facing is the result of their policies."
Official Washington was unimpressed by the Taliban's latest pronouncement on bin Laden's status.
"The announcement does not change anything," said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius. "The president was extremely clear in his address to the American people and the Congress that the demands that he outlined were not open to negotiation nor were they open to debate."
On Sept. 20, President Bush in a speech to a joint session of Congress demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there was no reason to believe the Taliban were telling the truth.
"Of course, it was just a few days ago that they said they didn't know where he was," Rumsfeld told NBC's Meet the Press, "so I have no reason to believe anything a Taliban representative has said."
Asked whether the Taliban is running a risk by harboring bin Laden, Rumsfeld said, "I would think that that ought to be self-evident at this point."
"The president has said we're not negotiating," White House chief of staff Andrew Card said on Fox News Sunday. "We've told the Taliban government what they should be doing. They've got to turn not only Usama bin Laden over but all of the operatives of the Al Qaeda organization. They've got to stop being a haven where terrorists can train."
Card added that the administration wants the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, but stopped short of saying that the U.S. will actively move to topple the Islamic militia, and maintained that the administration does not back any specific group to succeed the hard-line Islamist militia.
"If they are going to be associated with these terrorist acts, they should not be in power," Card said. "They've got to stop being a haven where terrorists can train. ... We are not about nation-building here. We want to make sure the Taliban is not a government that will aid and abet terrorists."
The Taliban did not indicate bin Laden's whereabouts, nor did they say whether he is in custody. However, sources with knowledge of the Taliban said there were "indications" that he had been in the Bagran district of Helmand province, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The area is lined with mountains, easily defended and close enough to Kandahar, the seat of the Taliban authority, to enable the religious militias to keep in touch with bin Laden.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on Sunday told CNN that it was unlikely the Taliban would ever hand bin Laden over, though Pakistan would continue to try to reach a diplomatic resolution.
"We haven't been able to succeed in moderating their view in surrendering Usama bin Laden," Musharraf told CNN.
Musharraf added that as of yet no American troops had arrived on Pakistani soil.
Bin Laden has already been formally charged in the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998. He has also been linked the attack on the USS Cole last year, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and to a number of other terrorist strikes against U.S. interests.
Meanwhile, with some British papers reporting a U.S.-led strike on Afghanistan may be just 48 hours away, a U.S. congressional delegation met in Rome with exiled former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah to discuss plans for a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. The meeting was to include members of Afghanistan's main opposition group, the Northern Alliance.
"Our discussions with the king made it very clear that he is willing, ready, and able to return to Afghanistan to serve at the head of an interim government," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., part of the congressional delegation.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported Sunday that six people had been arrested by the Taliban for distributing pro-U.S. leaflets advocating the return of Shah, according to Reuters. The crime might be punishable by death.
Reuters reported that Mullah Omar warned 86-year-old Shah, who was deposed in 1973 and currently lives in Rome, against meddling in Afghan affairs via Kabul's Voice of Shariat radio Sunday night.
"Forget Afghanistan — you won't be able to solve the issue of Afghanistan in your lifetime," said Omar, who is related to Usama bin Laden by marriage. "How dare you think you can return to Afghanistan backed by the United States. How are you going to rule the country? How can you think of such things?"
Top clerics from three provinces also issued an edict Sunday saying any Afghan believed to sympathize with the United States or the former king should be heavily fined and have his house burned down.
Also on Sunday, the judge in the case of eight foreign aid workers charged with trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity insisted their trial would not be affected by U.S.-led military action in the region.
The trial for the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians resumed after a three-week suspension following the Sept. 11 attacks. All but one of the defendants, an American woman who was said to be ill, appeared in court in Kabul.
The Taliban also sent a special team to the northeastern city of Jalalabad to investigate a British journalist arrested Friday after sneaking into Afghanistan. The Afghan Islamic Press said the team wanted to determine if Yvonne Ridley, 43, a reporter for the Sunday Express of London, was a spy.
On the domestic front, President Bush and his top security and intelligence advisers were spending the weekend discussing strategy at Camp David, while White House aides worked on a plan to boost the American economy and provide help to people left jobless by the attacks.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush condemned the Taliban for harboring bin Laden. The United States, meanwhile, pressed its military and diplomatic campaign against terror.
"The United States respects the people of Afghanistan, and we are their largest provider of humanitarian support," Bush said in his broadcast address. "But we condemn the Taliban, and welcome the support of other nations in isolating that regime."
Peace marchers paraded through the streets of Washington and other cities on Saturday protesting that innocent lives will likely be lost in the retaliation.
The United States moved more equipment into central Asia and military reservists called to active duty donned their uniforms.
Economic advisers polished a plan to provide a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and additional tax cuts. Aides said Bush is working with Democrats to increase the minimum wage.
On the investigation front, law enforcers estimated that planning and executing the highly coordinated attacks cost at least $500,000.
A law enforcement source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said federal agents tracked the hijackers' bank accounts, communications and travel tickets as they followed a trail that could lead to a small group of chief plotters in Europe and the Middle East.
In other developments:
• Attorney General John Ashcroft said that more terror attacks on the United States were likely, especially in the case of military retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. "We believe there is the likelihood of additional terrorist activity," Ashcroft told CBS' Face the Nation.
• Prince Sultan, defense minister of Saudi Arabia, told a Saudi newspaper that the country would not be used as a base for attacks against Arabs or Muslims. However, American military officials said that they have been discreetly assured that they will be allowed to use Saudi bases to at least coordinate military activities, if not actually launch attacks.
• The Red Cross said that the first of 19 trucks carrying food for starving Afghans had reached Kabul.
• The New York police tally of missing at the World Trade Center dropped to 5,641 and the confirmed dead rose to 309. The death toll at the Pentagon remained 189. Forty-four died in the Pennsylvania crash of a hijacked airliner.
• Officials estimated Saturday that the cost of the attacks on the World Trade Center would be nearly $40 billion, including the cost of rebuilding the skyscrapers.
• The Sunday Telegraph of London reported that an Iraqi defector said that Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical-weapons program was proceeding rapidly, and that a dozen robotic aircraft had been prepared as delivery vehicles. However, the defector said that Iraq's nuclear-weapons program had stalled due to lack of funding.
• Attorney General John Ashcroft said authorities have arrested or detained more than 480 people.
• Undersecretary of State John Bolton met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov to discuss forming an international coalition to fight terrorism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report