KABUL, Afghanistan – A senior Taliban official said Sunday that the ruling Afghan militia would discuss handing over Usama bin Laden to a third country if the U.S. and British bombing stopped — and if the U.S. revealed the proof it says it has of bin Laden's complicity in the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., last month.
Within minutes, President Bush had refused the Taliban's offer.
"There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt, we know he's guilty," Bush said at a Sunday afternoon press conference. "There's no negotiation. If they're interested in stopping military operations, they have to turn him over."
American officials have refused previous offers by the Taliban to negotiate, even though it has shared the evidence against bin Laden with other countries as part of coalition-building efforts. The U.S. has also ruled out bin Laden's handover to a third party.
If the evidence was given and the bombing stopped, "we would be ready to hand him over to a third country," said Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir, the third most powerful figure in the Taliban.
Kabir added that the third country would have to be one that would never "come under pressure from the United States."
"If America were to step back from the current policy, then we could negotiate," Kabir said. "Then we could discuss which third country."
A senior White House official, meanwhile, said that if bin Laden and his lieutenants were produced, their terror camps closed and the Western aid workers released, the U.S. and the Taliban "would talk about the modalities."
In the three-and-a-half weeks between the Sept. 11 crashing of jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which killed an estimated 6,000 people, and the beginning of the bombing campaign on Oct. 7, Taliban policy on handing over bin Laden shifted seemingly every day, from outright refusal to demands for evidence to offers of negotiation, and then often back again.
It is now widely believed that rather than being a "guest" of the Taliban under their "protection," bin Laden, with his military equipment, clandestine funding and thousands of foreign fighters, is at least an equal to the Taliban rulers, and may in fact be the true power in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, U.S. and British air strikes against Afghanistan entered their second week and their eighth night of bombing, as the Taliban tried to garner international sympathy by highlighting the plight of the bombings' civilian victims.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, U.S. targets on Sunday included the airport, the Taliban military academy and an artillery garrison. Taliban Information Ministry officials said warplanes also attacked targets around the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Herat.
As darkness fell, witnesses told Reuters that planes dropped bombs close to the Taliban front lines against the opposition Northern Alliance outside Kabul. The anti-aircraft fire from the city was said to have been noticeably weak.
Taliban sources told an independent Pakistani news service that Sunday's strikes targeted a civilian neighborhood near Kandahar's airport, where there are about 300 housing units for bin Laden's followers. The reports could not be independently confirmed because the Taliban have banned most foreign reporters from areas of the country they control.
On Sunday, however, the Taliban relaxed the ban to permit about 15 foreign journalists to visit the village of Karam in Afghanistan's eastern mountains, under Taliban escort. Afghan authorities say about 180 men, women and children were killed in a U.S. air strike Thursday at Karam.
Bin Laden is believed to have training camps in the Karam area. Washington has expressed regret for any casualties among civilians, saying bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization and the Taliban regime are their true targets.
The Taliban also reached out to their enemies in the Northern Alliance, appealing to their fellow Afghans to join them in fighting the Westerners.
"This is now a question of our religion and country," Taliban intelligence chief Qari Ahmedullah was quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press as saying. "We will forget our past differences with those who join us now."
There was no response from the Northern Alliance.
In his weekly radio address, Bush said seven days of bombing raids have "crippled" Taliban air defenses and disrupted bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"I warned that time was running out for the Taliban to turn over the terrorists they shelter. They did not listen, and they are paying a price," Bush said in Saturday's broadcast.
On Saturday, a Pentagon official acknowledged that a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb missed a helicopter at Kabul airport and slammed into a civilian area. Between one and four people were killed, according to witnesses and Taliban officials.
The bombs' shockwaves reached well beyond the uncertain Afghan border.
In southern Pakistan, police and paramilitary forces fought Sunday to hold back thousands of Islamic militants from an air base where U.S. personnel were said to be operating. One protester was killed and 10 were injured, authorities said. The military government claimed militant leaders were threatening suicide attacks on the base.
The air campaign has triggered protests, sometimes violent, elsewhere in the Islamic world. In Nigeria, a demonstration by Islamic fundamentalists escalated into bloody Muslim-Christian rioting in the northern city of Kano on Saturday. Churches and a mosque were burned and at least 13 people were dead in the latest round of months of religiously oriented violence.
On Saturday, bin Laden's Al Qaeda network released a new videotaped statement renewing threats of more suicide jet attacks.
The statement, read by spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith and aired on Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite television channel, advised Muslims in the United States and Britain to "avoid traveling by air or living in high buildings or towers."
Abu Gheith also declared that Bush, former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not "escape punishment" for "their terrible practices and the worst crimes."
"Millions of Muslims, men, women and children, have died without doing anything," the spokesman said.
Bush launched the attacks Oct. 7 after Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia repeatedly rejected demands to hand over bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which about 6,000 people were believed to have died.
The Associated Press contributed to this report