With U.S. investigators increasingly convinced Saudi-born dissident
Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks,
many Afghans fear it is just a matter of time before they are made to pay for the ruling Taliban giving him sanctuary.
Neighboring Pakistan -- one of only three countries to recognize the
Taliban -- offered ``full cooperation''
to Washington as it attempts to track down the perpetrators.
Significantly, Pakistan's then-government refused the U.S. permission
to overfly its airspace in 1998 as Washington
sought revenge for deadly bomb attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania for which bin Laden was also blamed.
While it was not immediately clear how many Arab nationals live in Afghanistan,
residents said almost all had left
central Kabul. Afghan-Arabs -- a term encompassing virtually all non-Afghan Muslim militants regardless of their
origin -- were also reported to have evacuated their bases elsewhere in the country.
Muslim militants from the Middle East, Philippines, Central Asia and
China have long used Afghanistan as a
training base. The United States has previously described the country as a ''school for terrorism.''
With Washington vowing a ``hammer of vengeance'' to those responsible
for the attacks and any country
which aided them, the Taliban have been swift to deny responsibility.
LITTLE SYMPATHY FROM BIN LADEN
But there was little sympathy from bin Laden himself.
An aide, who spoke by satellite telephone to Abu Dhabi television in
Pakistan, quoted him as saying that while
he had nothing to do with the attacks, they were ``punishment from Allah.'' ``I have no information about the
attackers or their aims and I don't have any links with them,'' the aide quoted bin Laden as saying.
The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, told
Reuters bin Laden had been cut off
from all outside communication -- including telephone and Internet -- and so it would have been impossible
for him to have coordinated the attack.
Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban information minister, dismissed reports
bin Ladin had been detained in
Kandahar, the Taliban headquarters, saying his status had not changed in two years.
``He has been under surveillance for the past two years. Osama has been
deprived from any communication
means since then and the case is the same now too,'' Jamal told Reuters from Kandahar. ``He is now in an
unknown location and, as before, has no means of contact with the outside world.''
Kabul residents, meanwhile, said they had seen people digging trenches
on the outskirts of the city and that
other fortifications were also being made.
With television banned, Kabul residents could be seen with small transistor
radios pressed to their ears listening
to foreign broadcasts for news of the disaster.
The capital has already come under fire this week, after anti-Taliban
forces used helicopter gunships to raid the city's
airport in retaliation for an assassination attempt -- in which bin Laden was also implicated -- on its military commander.
Despite growing fears, the Afghan capital remained largely calm Thursday with markets and bazaars bustling as normal.
But residents said they were frightened and scared, and most saw retaliation as a matter of course.
One resident was pragmatic about any impending danger. ``I don't care
about U.S. attacks,'' said government
employee Shakir Ullah. ``I lost half my life in the noise of artillery, helicopters and fighting.''
With the specter of military strikes looming, diplomats from Australia,
Germany and the United States -- in Kabul
with a number of relatives of eight Christian aid workers on trial for promoting Christianity -- left for Pakistan.
``We did not sense any difference than any other day,'' U.S. diplomat
David Donahue said on arrival.
``There was nothing going on in Kabul. It was quiet when we left.''
The plight of the eight has been enormously complicated by the U.S.
terror attacks, and Donahue said the
Taliban would be held responsible for the security of the detained foreigners.
The United Nations also withdrew its last remaining international staff
from Kabul Thursday, with many
in tears as they bade farewell to their local colleagues.
But the International Committee of the Red Cross, which operates key
health projects, said most
of its foreign staff would remain.
Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf responded unequivocally
Thursday to a U.S.
request for support, promising full cooperation.
``All countries must join hands in this common cause,'' he said in a
statement and on national television.
``I wish to assure President Bush and the U.S. government of our fullest cooperation in the fight against terrorism.''
Washington has vowed to strike back with a ``hammer of vengeance'' against
those responsible for the attacks,
which saw two hijacked commercial jets slam into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center while
another hit the Pentagon. It was the worst attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor.
But the Taliban warned retaliatory U.S. strikes would succeed only in sowing hatred in the region.
``If innocent and sinless people suffer, then it is certain that on
the level of the region, hatred will further increase,
the result of which will be similar to the suicide incidents,'' Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen told Reuters
from the southern Afghan town of Kandahar.
Experts said that besides bin Laden -- who honed his guerrilla skills
against Soviet troops in the 1980s commanding
Arab fighters funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency -- few have the cash or expertise to mount such attacks.
The tall, bearded 44-year-old commands Islamic militants willing to
die attacking the ultimate enemy,
the United States, which has earned him a $5 million bounty on his head.