Defying a US ultimatum and preparations for war, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said today Afghanistan's ruling militia would never surrender Osama bin Laden to the United States.
Ambassador Mr Abdul Salam Zaeef said to do so would be an "insult to Islam", after US President Mr George W. Bush demanded his immediate and unconditional extradition.
"This is not possible. There is no change in our stand toward Osama. Handing him over to America or forcing him out of the country is an insult to Islam and Shariat [law]," Mr Zaeef was quoted as saying by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
"This is not a problem of Osama. This is a problem of Islam and we are ready to sacrifice everything for Islam," he said, repeating the Taliban's belief that bin Laden was just a pretext for a US assault against the Muslim world.
Mr Bush had earlier warned: "The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate".
He ordered the radical Islamic militia to "deliver to [the] United States" all the leaders of bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, suspected of carrying out last week's devastating terror attacks in the United States.
A meeting of senior Islamic scholars from around Afghanistan yesterday issued a fatwa, or religious edict, asking the Taliban to persuade the Saudi-born bin Laden to leave the country of his own accord.
He has been living in Afghanistan under the wing of the Taliban since 1996. Rumours were rife yesterday that he may have already left the country, possibly to Chechnya or Central Asian states, where he has links with Islamist militants.
But a Pakistani source with close links to bin Laden said he was still in Afghanistan.