WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters)–Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban conceded for the first time on Tuesday that Osama bin Laden–whom President George W. Bush wants "dead or alive," may have been involved in the devastating attacks against the United States that killed nearly 6,000 people.
But Information Minister Qudrutullah Jamal told Reuters that proof of bin Laden’s involvement in the attack by hijacked airliners that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was needed before the Saudi-born exile could be handed over–and then only for trial in a third country.
A week after the attacks–New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the chances of finding any of the 5,422 people still missing in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center were "very–very small."
Many Americans–led by Bush–who has vowed stern retaliation against any state harboring those responsible–observed a moment of silence at 8:48 a.m.–exactly one week after the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center.
"May God continue to bless America," he said quietly as he stood with Vice President Dick Cheney on the White House south lawn in front of the presidential residence. In a later speech in the Rose Garden–he sought to bolster American spirit as "the home front" in a war against terrorism–appealing for disaster-relief donations.
In New York–local radio and television stations stopped regular programming to play the national anthem–the sound of tolling bells or somber music–marking the minute when the city’s skyline and psyche were forever changed.
After a stinging sell-off when the markets opened on Monday for the first time since the attacks–stocks posted modest gains at midday–as Wall Street struggled to regain confidence.
Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said Bush was considering direct financial aid to help US airlines reeling from the fallout of the aerial attacks.
Airline shares suffered the heaviest selling on Monday. With layoffs already under way–airline executives met with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta on Tuesday to review a request for $24 billion in government aid.
US investigators expanded to nearly 200 the number of people they want to question in connection with the attacks and are investigating if any of the 49 now in custody may have planned other hijackings.
While Bush sought to build a strong international coalition for a possible attack on Afghanistan–which calls bin Laden a "guest," some world leaders who condemned the attacks sounded alarm bells at the prospect of American military strikes.
Washington’s NATO allies have generally voiced full support for the declared war on terrorism–but China said any US military action should avoid harming innocent people and respect international law.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak–whose country is an important US ally in the Middle East–has also said the United States should think twice before taking military action that would kill civilians.
Germany–a key US ally–voiced caution. "We need to react with a cool head," Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said.
Reports in Pakistani newspapers raised the possibility that the Taliban could be ready for negotiations.
The Taliban might be prepared to hand over bin Laden–who is reported to have denied any hand in the attacks–under certain conditions–according to the reports in the Nation and Jang newspapers. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The conditions included the trial of bin Laden in a neutral Islamic country–the lifting of UN sanctions against the Taliban–economic assistance and suspension of foreign aid and military supplies to the Afghan opposition–said the reports.
A senior Afghan cleric also said the Taliban would launch a "jihad" or holy war against the United States if it attacked militarily–although officials of the Islamic movement quickly said the final decision lay with a council of clerics due to convene this week.
That council on Tuesday postponed for 24 hours a discussion on the fate of bin Laden. A Pakistani delegation left the Afghan capital–Kabul–after trying to convince the Taliban it must hand over bin Laden or face a US strike.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Khan refused to disclose details of the trip–although Taliban Information Ministry spokesman Abdul Rahman called the talks "fruitful."
Governmen’s around the world tightened security at borders–airports and military bases. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank canceled because of security concerns their flagship annual meetings–which were due to be held at the end of September in Washington. European Union leaders said they would hold an emergency summit on Friday on the unfolding drama.
The toll in the World Trade Center attack stood at 5,422 missing–with 218 confirmed dead–after six days of rescue efforts at the smoking ruins of the 110-story twin towers. Of the dead–only 152 have been identified.
A further 188 people died at the Pentagon–and 45 were killed in the crash of the fourth plane in Pennsylvania.
Caution persisted in world markets–with many financiers worried that a US campaign against global terror could hit buying power worldwide.
The colossal economic consequences of the attacks have prompted Bush to say he was ready to work with Congress to develop an economic stimulus package.
Along with dramatically increased security at the nation’s airports–Americans are facing a range of new security measures everywhere from baseball stadiums to office high-rises.
The FBI is following up 47,000 potential leads. Officials have named 19 men they say used knives and box cutters to hijack the four commercial airliners.
US authorities have arrested on sealed warran’s at least four witnesses with key information about the attacks or who posed a flight risk. They have detained 49 other people for immigration violations in the course of the investigation.
With Washington warning the world it was time to pick sides–Britain and Italy said they would contribute militarily if asked. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac–along with a parade of foreign ministers–are due in Washington this week.