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Taliban clerics deciding bin Laden's fate

Thousands of refugees are trying to flee Afghanistan


Afghanistan's highest-ranking Islamic clerics are meeting to discuss whether to hand over Osama bin Laden, who the United States accuses of masterminding last week's terrorist attacks.

The clerics' meeting, ordered by the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, comes after a Pakistani delegation returned home after warning the Taliban of attacks by the US if it did not surrender bin Laden.

The Taliban has called on Afghans to prepare for a jihad, or holy war against the United States.

There has been widespread speculation that the US is preparing for possible military strikes against Afghanistan if the Taliban refuses to cooperate.

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.

"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," he said.

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.

Diplomatic pressure

The United States turned to Pakistan as a potential ally in hunting down the Saudi-born militant, bin Laden, and stepped up diplomatic pressure on Afghanistan to surrender him, warning that a failure to do so would unleash America's "full wrath".

However, following the meeting with the Pakistani officials, Afghanistan's Bakhtar News Agency broadcast a message from Taliban leaders urging Afghans to prepare for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States, if it is attacked.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations said on Tuesday that the senior Pakistani delegation tried to convince the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist militia that controls most of Afghanistan, of the urgency of the situation.

"I cannot predict at this stage what the outcome is going to be," Shamshad Ahmad said. "In our view it was worth making an effort through diplomatic engagement."

Thousands fleeing Afghanistan

Meanwhile thousands of Afghans are said to be fleeing the country's cities and heading for the border with Pakistan in an attempt to flee the crisis.

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 had now 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

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