WASHINGTON (REUTERS) — The hunt for Osama bin Laden took a major step forward Thursday, when Pakistan said Laden was probably behind suicide plane attacks on America and the United States revealed it had an inkling of where he was hiding.
Britain released a document, supported by the United States, which detailed evidence against bin Laden and concluded the Saudi-born extremist, as well as his shadowy al Qaeda network, had the will and resources to carry out further attacks.
The world was kept on edge, not only by growing speculation that a military attack was imminent on bin Laden’s suspected hiding place in Pakistan’s besieged neighbor Afghanistan, but by events unconnected to the Sept. 11 attacks.
They included a case of anthrax at a Florida hospital and the crash of a Russian airliner on a flight from Israel.
Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban were dealt a potentially fatal body blow by Pakistan’s announcement it had seen enough evidence to justify putting bin Laden on trial. Pakistan is the only nation to maintain any diplomatic ties with the Taliban.
“We have seen the material that was provided to us by the American side yesterday. This material certainly provides sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law,” foreign ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan told a news conference.
The Taliban held a special cabinet meeting as their grip on the country appeared to be slipping.
BRIEF ANTHRAX SCARE
The puritanical Islamic rulers were struggling to unite the country’s quarrelsome tribes behind their decision to continue sheltering bin Laden despite a U.S. vow to punish them for it.
There were brief shock waves in the U.S. when an isolated case of anthrax infection was diagnosed in a Florida hospital before Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson stepped in to declare there was no evidence of a biological warfare assault.
Anthrax — a deadly bacterial disease spread by spores and generally confined to sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs ? is seen as a likely agent in any biological warfare attack because it can be deployed relatively easily. Inhaling anthrax, which infects the lungs, is usually fatal.
Thompson said the case involved a 63-year-old British-born man, an outdoorsman who could have picked up the infection from his clothes and had drunk water from a creek recently.
“There is no evidence of terrorism,” he told reporters.
In another incident that kept nerves frayed, Israel suspended all flights out of Tel Aviv for several hours after a Russian TU-154 exploded and crashed in the Black Sea with 78 people on board.
Confusion surrounded the cause of the crash, but the move underscored the nervousness gripping the world since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon outside Washington, which left over 5,700 people feared dead.
Ukraine quickly dismissed U.S. suggestions that the plane might have been hit by an accidental missile strike from the Ukrainian military.
The mid-air explosion of the Sibir airlines jet on a scheduled flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in Siberia, inevitably triggered fears of sabotage following the airliner attacks in the United States.
BRITISH FORCES NEARBY
But Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the media not to “sensationalize” the accident, backing down from earlier comments that the crash might be a “terrorist act.”
The twin attacks have led to the biggest U.S. mobilization since the 1991 Gulf War. U.S. B-52 and B-1 bombers, warships and elite special forces have already moved to the Gulf, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean.
In Oman, up to 20,000 British land, sea and air forces are carrying out exercises with Omani forces, amid speculation that they may be used in any attack on Afghanistan.
The British government’s release to the public of a dossier against the Islamic guerrilla leader bin Laden and the passing by U.S. officials of more detailed evidence to some friendly governments this week are key steps in preparing international opinion for military action in Afghanistan.
The document made available to journalists in London said that of the 19 hijackers identified from the passenger lists of the four planes hijacked in America on Sept. 11, at least three had been identified as associates of bin Laden with a track record in his camps and organization.
One of the three was identified as a key plotter in attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and later on the U.S. warship Cole in Yemen, the document said.
Bin Laden urged associates to return to Afghanistan by Sept. 10 because a major operation was planned, it said.
In the Middle East, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a tour to shore up support among Arab states for the war on terrorism, held talks with Sultan Qaboos of Oman on how his country, within striking distance of Afghanistan, could help U.S. forces to conduct an offensive.
U.S. AID FOR AFGHAN PEOPLE
Rumsfeld later held talks with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi.
Rumsfeld said he had an inkling of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but not an exact location. He also said conventional weapons would not be the determining factor in the war on terrorism.
He has been seeking to stiffen the resolve of Gulf states, who want to make sure U.S. action is limited to Afghanistan and does not expand to involve Arab states like Iraq, identified by Washington as a backer of terrorism.
The United States’ NATO allies agreed to provide all the logistical assistance it had requested in preparation for a strike against the Taliban and bin Laden.
President Bush announced $320 million in aid to alleviate a burgeoning refugee problem in Afghanistan.
“This is our way of saying that while we strongly and firmly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends with the Afghan people,” Bush said
Pentagon officials said the military was drawing up plans to parachute emergency food rations to thousands of displaced people in the landlocked central Asian country.
Iran said on Thursday it had sent thousands of extra troops to its eastern border with Afghanistan to stop refugees flooding across the frontier in case of U.S. strikes.
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said the U.S. economy had almost certainly contracted as a result of the attack but predicted it would quickly bounce back.
“There’s almost no way that an economy like ours can escape negative growth when you have that kind of a shutdown in the economy,” he said.
Experts said the time window for U.S.-led military action appeared to be narrowing, with several indicators pointing to a possible strike any time from early next week.
A host of factors, including politicians’ travel plans, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, public opinion, the weather and Muslim holidays all point to a short window of opportunity for action between Oct. 8 and mid-November.