Afghanistan's Taliban rulers are not ruling out the possibility that Osama bin Laden masterminded last week's attacks, but they say they need proof before he can be handed over.
"Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him," information minister Mr Qudrutullah Jamal said in Kabul, conceding for the first time that bin Laden may have been involved in last Tuesday's devastating attacks that killed about 5,000 people.
Previously the hardline Islamic movement has insisted bin Laden could not possibly have been involved. Bin Laden has been reported as denying any role.
Mr Jamal was speaking just hours after high-ranking Pakistani officials flew home after two days of talks aimed at persuading the Taliban that if they do not hand over the Saudi-born militant they will face the full wrath of the US military.
"We told them (the Pakistani delegation) to give us proof that he did it, because without that how can we give him up?" Mr Jamal said.
Asked if the Taliban had any other conditions for handing over bin Laden, Mr Jamal said they wanted guarantees that, if charged, the multi-millionaire would face trial in a third country.
"We want proof first and we have been saying this for two years," he said, referring to demands for bin Laden's handover after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"If they had listened to us then, things would not have come to such a pass," he said.
"Afghans have seen the same sort of suffering for a long time, they can sympathise with the Americans," the information minister said referring to the past two decades of war. "We appeal to the US not to take any hasty decisions."
A decision on bin Laden will depend partly on results of a meeting of some 1,000 of Afghanistan's highest-ranking Islamic clerics now converging on Kabul in response to a call from Mullah Omar for a council, or shura, tomorrow.
The council, postponed for at least one day, would not only discuss what to do with bin Laden and whether to set conditions for his surrender but would also consider a call by Mullah Omar for a holy war in case of a US attack and his recommendations after meeting the Pakistanis, Taliban officials said.