WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters)–The United States demanded action not words from Afghanistan on Wednesday–rejecting an apparent offer from its Taliban rulers for talks on Osama bin Laden–prime suspect in last week’s attacks on New York and Washington that left nearly 6,000 people feared dead.
"Anybody who harbors terrorists needs to fear the United States and the rest of the freedom-loving world," President George W. Bush told reporters at the Oval Office.
He delivered the blunt message after the Taliban’s reclusive spiritual leader–Mullah Mohammed Omar–said he was ready for talks with the United States on bin Laden.
"The president’s message is very simple – it’s time for action not negotiations," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Stocks continued their fall–battered for a third day on fears of recession–war and plunging corporate profits.
Despite his talks offer–Omar appeared in no hurry to surrender the Saudi-born militant and suggested Bush’s crusade to capture him was a pretext to crush Islamic rule.
"The enemies of this country look on the Islamic system as a thorn in their eye and they seek different excuses to finish it off," Omar told Islamic clerics meeting in Kabul to discuss bin Laden’s fate. "Osama bin Laden is one of these."
Bush has identified bin Laden–believed hiding in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Taliban–as the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11. attack by hijacked airliners.
He has urged Afghanistan to surrender the 44-year-old multimillionaire and members of his al Qaeda organization or face the consequences. Bin Laden denies involvement.
"I would strongly urge the Taliban to turn over the al Qaeda organizers who hide in their country," Bush said as he met President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia–home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
The talks were part of a push to forge a global coalition in a "war on terrorism" that Bush says will use diplomatic–financial and military means to "smoke out" those behind the attacks and punish states that shelter or support them.
"We’re on the case," Bush told reporters. "We’re gathering as much evidence as we possibly can to be able to make our case to the world."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday ordered more than 100 military aircraft to move toward the Middle East region in the wake of last week’s attack on America–defense officials said.
The officials–who asked not to be identified–would not say exactly where the fighters–bombers and support aircraft would go. But they told Reuters they were expected to begin moving toward bases in or near the Gulf region as early as Thursday.
The FBI has drawn up a list of about 200 suspects and key witnesses in investigations into the destruction of the World Trade Center’s 110-story twin towers and part of the Pentagon by hijackers using commandeered commercial aircraft.
A fourth airliner crashed in Pennsylvania–where the FBI on Wednesday said investigators had begun deciphering the cockpit voice recorder recovered at the scene of the crash.
In Detroit–the FBI said federal agents had arrested three Arabs who were allegedly found with false identity papers and notes on a US air base in Turkey and a Jordanian airport.
"They were charged with identity fraud–with misuse of visas–permits and the other documen’s that we obtained–and conspiracy," said FBI spokeswoman Dawn Clenney.
The three men–from Algeria and Morocco–were arrested late on Monday while the FBI was searching for a fourth man–Nabil Al-Marabh–who is believed to have links to bin Laden–according to an affidavit in their arrest.
In New York–authorities moved another step closer to a declaration that there was no remaining hope of finding survivors among the more than 5,400 people missing in the still smoking ruins the World Trade Center.
"We have had thousands of people down there working for the last seven days and nights," Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told ABC’s "Good Morning America" program. "With each hour and minute our hopes are diminished" of finding anyone alive.
Stocks continued their fall on Wall Street–where investors buckled under fears of a global economic recession–war and an anticipated slump in consumer confidence.
The blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 3.5 percent to 8,590 points by early afternoon after hitting its lowest close since mid-December 1998 on Tuesday.
The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 5.4 percent–with European bourses all closing sharply down. Oil prices also spiraled lower on fears of looming recession.
The far-reaching economic consequences of the attacks were illustrated on Tuesday when No. 1 aircraft maker Boeing said it planned to lay off up to 30,000 workers by the end of 2002.
The White House on Wednesday said Bush was now leaning toward a stimulus package to help the US economy recover from the attacks–but no decisions had been taken.
French President Jacques Chirac became the first foreign leader to survey New York’s devastation at first hand on Wednesday–flying over the concrete and steel skeleton of the World Trade Center with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Chirac–who met Bush at the White House on Tuesday–hailed the firefighters at the forefront of the rescue mission. More than 300 of them are dead or missing after rushing into the burning towers and are feared buried in the collapse.
"I want to say bravo–thank you. You did that for the New Yorkers but also for all the free world–for the dignity of all mankind and we know that and we are beside you," Chirac said.
Chirac on Tuesday stopped short of endorsing Bush’s characterization of the campaign against terrorism as a "war," a sign of the possible differences that could dog the US quest for a united global front.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer–one of a string of senior foreign visitors who was to meet Bush later in the day–said on Wednesday his country would be a partner in such a coalition–adding: "We do not rule out any option."
Bush has spoken of waging a protracted war against terrorism that will use less conventional means than past US-led military campaigns against more visible enemies.
"This will be a different kind of battle–a series of battles…that will be fought visibly sometimes–and sometimes we’ll never see what may be taking place," he said on Wednesday.
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan–which has agreed to cooperate with the United States despite strong popular support for the Taliban–said no operational plans were ready yet for a US-led attack on neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials left Afghanistan on Tuesday after trying to convince the Taliban that if they do not hand over bin Laden their turbaned fighters will face the full wrath of the world’s most powerful military force.
Rumsfeld said Afghanistan–one of the world’s poorest and most rugged countries–would be a difficult military target for any nation.
"Several countries have exhausted themselves pounding that country," he said. In the past century–the mighty British and Russian armies were unable to subdue Afghan fighters.
Britain on Wednesday ordered dependents of diplomats and non-essential staff to leave Pakistan due to a danger of unrest. Canada–Germany–Australia and New Zealand are all advising their nationals to consider pulling out.
As thousands of Afghans fled cities fearing a US attack–the United Nations prepared urgent plans to feed and shelter tired and hungry refugees and urged that any attack should be targeted to protect the innocent.
Hundreds of Islamic clerics were gathered at the presidential palace in Kabul for a grand council–or shura–to consider the US demand to surrender bin Laden.
"We have not tried to create problems with America," Mullah Omar said in a speech read to the meeting. "We have had several talks with the present and the past American governmen’s and we are ready for (more) talks," the Afghan Islamic Press agency quoted him as saying.
He said any evidence linking bin Laden to the attacks should be handed over to the Afghan Supreme Court or to clerics of three Islamic countries.
"We assure the whole world that neither Osama nor anyone else can use Afghan territory against anyone," he said.
AIP said the meeting was expected to reach a decision on bin Laden on Thursday in accordance with Islamic law.