QUETTA, Pakistan – The Taliban refused to hand over suspected terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden Tuesday without evidence that he was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
An ambassador for Afghanistan's ruling militia, Abdul Salaam Zaeef, dismissed threats from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush and said that they are ready for negotiations with Washington on surrendering bin Laden. The U.S. has repeatedly rejected this offer.
Both Bush and Blair issued tough warnings to the Taliban on Tuesday, with the British leader telling Afghanistan's leaders in a speech to "surrender terrorists or surrender power."
It came as NATO's secretary general said Washington had presented its allies with "compelling" proof that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington.
At a news conference in Pakistan, Zaeef responded to the comments and said: "We don't want to surrender (him) without any proof, any evidence." And he dismissed NATO's claims that Washington had presented the alliance with conclusive evidence.
"If they are giving it (evidence) to the other countries, it belongs to them, not to us," he replied. "They haven't given it to us."
"We are ready for negotiations," Zaeef said. "It is up to the other side to agree or not. Only the way of negotiation will solve our problems. We should discuss this issue and decide."
The United States has turned down Taliban offers to negotiate. Bush repeated that stance Tuesday. "I have said that the Taliban must turn over the Al Qaeda organization living in Afghanistan and must destroy the terrorist camps. They must do so, otherwise there will be a consequence," he said. "There are no negotiations. There is no calendar."
Taliban officials have repeatedly said they are not afraid of American military action.
"Only Allah changes the regime and only Allah brings the others instead of us," Zaeef said, speaking in English.
A rally in Kandahar, the southern city where the Taliban was formed, appeared to underscore that defiant message.
In Kandahar, 10,000 marchers burned American flags and effigies of President Bush, shouting that Afghanistan would not give up bin Laden, according to the Afghan Islamic Press, an Islamabad-based private news agency close to the Taliban. Later, Taliban officials in Kabul put the number of protesters at 50,000. No independent confirmation could be obtained.
Abdul Hanan Himat, the Taliban information minister, said marchers also denounced Afghanistan's deposed king, who has indicated he might ally himself with groups seeking to topple the Taliban.
The Taliban also appeared anxious to dispel any rumors of an internal split. The Taliban's No. 2 man — Mullah Mohammed Hassan, who is thought to be more flexible in his thinking than Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar — took part in a pro-government rally in the southern Afghanistan city of Gardez, Taliban officials said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has pledged to back the United States against bin Laden and the Taliban, was briefed Tuesday by the U.S. ambassador on the status of the American investigation into bin Laden.
A Pakistani official said afterward that Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin provided no conclusive proof that bin Laden was involved in the terror attacks.
"We have yet to receive any detailed evidence about the persons responsible for the horrendous act of terrorism, or other links with bin Laden or Al Qaeda," Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan said.
Embassy spokesman Mark Wentworth said the 90-minute meeting included several issues, among them "the status of the investigation to date." U.S. officials could not be reached to comment on the Pakistani foreign ministry statement.
On Monday, Musharraf told the British Broadcasting Corp. that U.S. strikes against Afghanistan appear certain. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry underscored that Tuesday, saying: "We have told them (the Taliban) that they don't have much time."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.