WASHINGTON – President Bush said no deal to the Taliban’s offer to release eight imprisoned foreign aid workers if the United States halts its "massive propaganda campaign."
The offer comes as the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition circles Afghanistan and as its ruling Taliban movement become increasingly isolated from other Muslims.
"The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations," the president said during his weekly radio address. "Full warning has been given and time is running out."
Many of Afghanistan's neighbors continue to support the U.S. effort to end terrorism.
A U.S. aircraft was spotted in Uzbekistan Saturday, a day after that country's president permitted U.S. warplanes and the 1,000 deployed troops to use an Uzbek air base for any military operations against Afghanistan.
In response Taliban officials threatened to attack Uzbekistan if it aided the United States in pursuing Usama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership, Taliban-run radio reported.
The Taliban foreign ministry compared the aid workers’ predicament to the Afghan people’s plight and said the United States "should issue a statement that the (Afghan) people will be safe and will not be the target of attack and that they can go back to their homes. If they stop issuing threats, we will take steps for the release of the eight foreigners."
"The president has made clear from the beginning that the Taliban needs to release the aid workers and that it is time for action, not negotiation," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
The eight aid workers in Kabul — four Germans, two Americans and two Australians — were arrested in August on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a serious crime under Taliban law in the devout Islamic nation.
All are employees of the German-based Christian organization Shelter Now International. Sixteen Afghan staff of the same aid organization also were arrested.
The offer Saturday to release them in the middle of their trial contradicted Taliban chief justice Noor Mohammed Saqib's assertion this week that there was no connection between their trial and the growing dispute with the United States over bin Laden.
But as the Taliban's isolation grows, the issues are becoming increasingly interwoven.
The ministry said that if the fate of the aid workers was important on humanitarian grounds, "so are the people of Afghanistan who have been hit by drought, cruel sanctions and are facing winter."
"Because of American threats, people are being forced to flee their homes, along with their children and women and old people," the statement said. "Are their lives not important?"
In Islamabad, John Mercer, father of American aid worker Heather Mercer, said he was heartened by the statement and called it "very encouraging."
"The issue of the detainees is now out there," he said.
Saqib, the Afghan chief justice, has refused to discuss possible punishment. For Afghans, the mandatory punishment for preaching Christianity is death.
The offers were the latest in a series by the Taliban, who want to negotiate over U.S. demands that they hand over Usama bin Laden, chief suspect in last month's terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The release of a British journalist arrested last month for sneaking into Afghanistan was ordered by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said in Islamabad Saturday.
Following appeals by a British diplomat and the Pakistani government, Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said release of Yvonne Ridley, 43, was granted.
On Saturday, Taliban anti-aircraft guns fired at a high-flying aircraft over the capital. The origin and type of the plane were unknown. The intense volley sent thousands of residents into the streets to stare at the plane, barely visible overhead.
Afghan gunners have fired anti-aircraft bursts in recent days in what the Taliban said were drills. However, Saturday's firing was much more intense, according to witnesses in the Afghan capital.
As the United States masses military forces, its leaders and allies are seeking support from governments in the Muslim heartland of the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central Asia for a crackdown on bin Laden, his Al Qaeda terrorist network and his Taliban allies.
Especially pivotal is the support of Pakistan, Afghanistan's eastern neighbor and an important Islamic ally for the United States.
With that in mind, British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid a visit to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Friday night, a demonstration of solidarity aimed as much at the Muslim world as at Pakistan itself.
Some Pakistanis are angry at Musharraf's decision to support the United States, and many have staged protests in larger cities. In the border city of Peshawar, several thousand people staged a noisy rally Saturday to denounce the United States and pledge support for the Taliban.
Blair, who leads a country with substantial Pakistani and Muslim populations, said his visit was "part of making sure that around Afghanistan we have all the people supporting us."
"The purpose is to ensure that we have a trap set around Afghanistan in which everyone supports the things we need to do," he said. He met Saturday in New Delhi with leaders of India, which also has a substantial Muslim population.
As Blair tried to persuade Muslims that the coming military campaign will not become a Western war against Islam or Afghans, the United States focused diplomatic efforts further north.
In exchange for cooperation, Karimov said Uzbekistan was seeking security guarantees.
Russia, meanwhile, was set to begin evacuating its citizens from Pakistan on Saturday. Officials in Moscow said they were concerned about growing tensions in the region.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.