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MANY AFGHANS FLEEING CAPITAL AFTER TALIBAN REJECTS U.S. DEMANDS

Weary Afghans loaded belongings into trucks and carts Friday and left the capital, fearing U.S. airstrikes after their Taliban rulers rejected American demands to hand over alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

"Out of 20 homes on our street most of the families have left," said Mohammed Hussein as he piled his family's things into a pickup truck to join relatives in Logar province south of Kabul, the capital. "Anyone who can is leaving."

On a main road leading north out of Kabul, Azizullah -- who like many Afghans, uses only one name -- pushed a cart filled with pots and pans, a trunk and a few tattered carpets. His two daughters were pale and weak from dysentery. His 12-year-old boy, Hamidullah, pushed a smaller cart loaded with some mattresses and pillows.

"I don't know where to go," he said. "I've been wandering the city trying to find a safe spot. But I have no money and I don't know what to do. Our home is near a military base, and I don't want to stay there with my children."

Tensions rose in this capital -- devastated by 23 years of civil war -- after President Bush warned the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and his chief lieutenants or "share in their fate."

Addressing a joint session of Congress, Bush also demanded the Taliban give the United States full access to terrorist training camps and release imprisoned U.S. aid workers, saying the demands were not negotiable. Bush told U.S. military forces to be ready for war.

The Taliban rejected the demands.

"There has been no change in our stand toward Osama," the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in Islamabad. "It would be an insult to Islam and its laws if bin Laden is handed over to the United States or forcibly expelled from Afghanistan."

Zaeef insisted that the United States has provided no credible evidence that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Muslim religious leaders took advantage of traditional Friday religious services to prepare the Afghan people for war. Speakers in many mosques reminded the faithful how Afghan fighters had driven the Soviet army from their country and vowed to do the same to the Americans.

Thousands of people are believed to have headed for neighboring countries, including Iran and Pakistan. Both countries, which have taken in millions of Afghans fleeing civil war and drought, have closed their borders to more refugees.

In other developments in the war America has declared on terror:

Saudi Arabia is resisting the United States' request to use a new command center on a Saudi military base in any air war against terrorists, forcing Pentagon planners to consider alternatives that could delay a campaign for weeks, defense officials said Friday.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is trying to persuade the Saudi government to reverse a decade-old policy in which it has refused to allow the United States to stage or command offensive air operations from Saudi air bases, officials told the Los Angeles Times.

While high-level talks aimed at resolving the matter are under way, the Pentagon is already considering moving the operations center to another country, the officials added.

Islamic groups called thousands of people onto the streets of Pakistan's major cities for anti-American and anti-government demonstrations, but the turnout was smaller than expected and protest leaders failed in their goal of shutting down the country with a general strike.

The largest gathering and only major violence came in the southern city of Karachi, where three people were killed. Few arrests or disturbances were reported elsewhere. In most cities, only shops near protest sites closed.

The demonstrations were the first major test of strength for those opposed to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's decision to help the United States track down bin Laden, and the government here clearly was relieved at the low turnout.

Stressing their solidarity with the United States, European Union leaders on Friday gave their backing to "targeted" U.S. retaliation against countries harboring terrorists and said they were prepared to help.

"We reaffirmed our full solidarity not only from the heart but also from our sense of reason," French President Jacques Chirac said. "To be clear, we will not sit on the sidelines of this battle against this scourge."

The U.S. mobilization continued. Troops were boarding planes at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey for unknown destinations. Air refueling tankers were taking off from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Wash., and members of the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C., were flying out, headed for the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean.

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