In a blow to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Sudan has quietly begun rounding up extremists who have used the African country as an operating base and safe haven for more than a decade, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Sudan's willingness to cooperate, which also includes offering the use of its military facilities, is considered a breakthrough in the United States' battle against terrorism. The Khartoum government is Arab and rigidly Islamic, and thus its action sets an important precedent for other countries in the Muslim world, officials said.
"Sudan is now effectively eliminated as one of the biggest bases of operation for bin Laden," a senior U.S. official said. "Bin Laden and his allies now have one less place to hide, one less place to operate, one less place to have friends. That's a very important development."
In other developments:
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have advised bin Laden of a clerical decision last week urging him to leave the country voluntarily, the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan said today, acknowledging that the Taliban knows his location.
The Taliban had asserted they could not find bin Laden to inform him of the recommendation, adopted Sept. 20 by a council of Muslim clerics, or the Ulema.
Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the clerics' decision had been "endorsed" by the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"Osama has now received the Ulema council's recommendations and their endorsement" by Omar, he said. "We have not lost Osama, but he is out of sight of the people."
Zaeef did not say how the message was conveyed, nor where bin Laden was hiding. He also did not indicate bin Laden's reaction to the message.
Omar warned Afghans today not to look to the United States for help in challenging his hard-line Islamic rule.
"Those Afghans who want to seize power with the help of America are just like those fools who tried to stay in power with the help of the Russian army," he said, referring to the Soviet defeat in the 1979-1989 war when Afghans who took power during the Soviet occupation were toppled after the Soviet withdrawal.
"If America interferes in Afghanistan, then it will be no different from Russia."
A delegation of Pakistani religious parties said it planned to travel to Afghanistan on Saturday to talk to the Taliban about the possibility of negotiating over the U.S. demand that the Taliban turn over bin Laden.
The trial of eight foreign aid workers charged with preaching Christianity in Afghanistan is expected to resume Saturday. The trial of the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians began last month. It was suspended after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
U.S. officials are investigating a 1998 meeting between bin Laden and Farouk Hijazi, an Iraqi intelligence officer who is Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, in southeastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden is known to have training camps.
Iran said it would not participate in or condone any U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the United States was not "competent and sincere" enough to lead a global war on terrorism, and called for the United Nations to lead any campaign.