Hundreds of Afghan clerics met in the Afghan capital Kabul on Wednesday to decide whether to extradite Osama bin Laden, the key suspect in last week's terrorist attacks in the United States, which left nearly 6,000 people missing or dead.
The Muslim clerics, who gathered in the rocket-damaged presidential palace, are determining whether to hand over bin Laden or to back the ruling Taliban's call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States in case of an attack.
The country's official news agency said they were expected to make a decision on Thursday.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, opened the meeting by saying that Washington's vilification of bin Laden was an effort to harm the Taliban. "Osama is just an excuse. And, in fact, the US wants to destabilise the Taliban," he said in his speech.
Omar also added that the Taliban would not hand over bin Laden unless they had proof that he was involved in the attacks.
In a speech to the clerics, Omar said that "Afghanistan does not have resources, nor is Osama that powerful, nor does he have contacts with the outside world to carry out or plan such attacks. We also do not give him permission to use Afghan territory against any other country."
Omar said Afghanistan has "severed all the communication links of Osama, and he cannot have contact with the outside world."
The clerics' meeting began shortly after a Pakistani delegation returned to Islamabad following a visit to warn the Taliban of dire consequences if it does not surrender bin Laden.
French show solidarity
Meanwhile, president George W. Bush gained support from French president Jacques Chirac in a meeting of the two leaders at the White House on Tuesday. "I wanted to tell president Bush, who is my friend, that we stand in total solidarity," Chirac said.
However, the French president, whose visit was planned before the attack, hesitated to endorse Bush's description of the campaign as war. "I don't know whether we should use the word war... and I believe everything must be done to protect and safeguard the values of civilization," he said.
Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov and his German counterpart Joschka Fischer are expected to meet Bush in Washington on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Israel took steps to remove a potential obstacle to US efforts to forge an anti-terror alliance, when it responded to international pressure to stop offensive military actions against the Palestinians.
Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's decision came shortly after the Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat, ordered a ceasefire and told his security officers not to fire at Israeli soldiers.
The US feared military actions in the Middle East would make it more difficult for Arab states to back their efforts against terrorism.
After the announcement Bush said he hoped the Middle East developments were a good sign. "I hope in my heart of hearts that out of this evil comes good. I am a very optimistic person," he said.
"Late in the day"
Meanwhile, Arnold Hottinger, a specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs, told swissinfo that military strikes would not be the answer to the current situation and that action against the Taliban should have been taken years ago.
Also killing bin Laden would be counter-productive, he said, because it would mean "killing the information he has."
He added that "Unfortunately everything is very late in the day. One should have proceeded against the Taliban years ago. One should not have permitted that they come to power."
However, Hottinger thinks that if the Taliban keeps a hardline approach, there could still be a chance to proceed against them and try to remove them from power. "This could be quite difficult though," as the Taliban's wealth has made it powerful, he said.
Thousands fleeing Afghanistan
Thousands of Afghans tried to flee the country, meanwhile, but because neighbouring Pakistan and Iran have closed their borders, many of the refugees gathered near the borders, waiting for a chance to cross to safety.
The Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that Afghanistan is facing a potential humanitarian disaster. UNHCR spokesman Kris Janovski warned on Tuesday that the World Food Programme's reserves would run out within weeks as food shipments to Afghanistan have stopped.
"We are worried that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have left the cities and are headed for Pakistan," said foreign ministry spokesman Riaz Khan. "According to our information, large numbers are already gathered on our borders."
Thousands more have been gathering on islands along a river marking the border with Tajikistan, Russian border officials revealed.
swissinfo with agencies