U.S. and British forces have conducted scouting missions in Afghanistan, where suspected terrorists are hiding, a top Bush administration official said today.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the work of the special forces is a prelude to potential military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The official denied reports that the forces, deployed in the last few days, are actively seeking Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader who is considered the prime suspect in the attacks.
The development came as President Bush said the United States is "in hot pursuit" of terrorists behind the attacks.
In an Oval Office meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president said he and his military planners have taken note of lessons learned by Russia in its long, brutal struggle against Afghan rebels in the 1980s.
"It is very hard to fight a . . . guerrilla war with conventional forces," Bush said. "There may or may not be a conventional component to" U.S. military action against terrorists believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, he said.
Bush refused to discuss details of his military plans but said: "Make no mistake about it -- we're in hot pursuit" of terrorists.
In London, prosecutors said today that an Algerian pilot arrested there last Friday on a U.S. warrant seeking his extradition instructed four of the hijackers involved in the attacks.
At a court hearing, prosecutors said Lotfi Raissi, 27, was wanted in the United States on charges of giving false information in connection with his application for a pilot's license. They said he qualified in the United States as a pilot in 1997, attending the same Arizona flight school as four of the hijackers involved in the attacks.
Prosecutor Arvinda Sambir told the court that Raissi was "a lead instructor" of four of the pilots who were responsible for the hijackings and that his job was to make sure that they were "capable and trained for this purpose."
Sambir said authorities believe Raissi was closely involved with the men that flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Further charges were expected, she said, including conspiracy to murder.
Richard Egan, Raissi's defense lawyer, said his client rejected the allegations. "He adamantly denies any involvement in the recent appalling tragedies," he said.
Raissi was arrested by anti-terrorist police along with three other people. A man and a woman were later released without charge, but police earlier this week requested an additional 48 hours to question Raissi and Abu Imard, 44.
The investigation into the attacks has thwarted two terrorist schemes since Sept. 11 and gathered evidence suggesting collaborators had other plots to harm U.S. interests at home and abroad, officials said.
Evidence seized in raids in the United States and in Europe included plans or materials for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Paris and an attack with explosives on a military site in Brussels, Belgium, the officials said.
The officials, who work in law enforcement and intelligence and spoke only on condition of anonymity, said about two dozen arrests have been made across Europe of people suspected of being involved in planning those attacks.
Meanwhile, Pakistani religious and government figures met today with Afghanistan's rulers to try to get them to surrender bin Laden or force him to leave the country. The talks ended with no sign that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had softened his stance.
Even while describing the talks as "fruitful," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, who accompanied the Pakistani delegation, acknowledged that the subject of bin Laden was out of bounds.
Zaeef insisted the purpose of the talks was "not to discuss Osama bin Laden, but to discuss the crisis." He said the two sides "talked about the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan." There will be more meetings, he said.
The Pakistani delegation's visit came a day after the Taliban delivered a message to bin Laden, asking him to leave the country voluntarily. It was the first indication from the Taliban that it knew where bin Laden was or how to communicate with him.
President Bush has demanded the Taliban surrender bin Laden or share his fate, raising expectations of an American-led military action against Afghanistan.
Other Taliban officials said Thursday they have accepted separate offers by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Pakistani Muslim leaders to act as mediators with the United States concerning bin Laden. The officials were quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press based in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Jackson said today he is leaning against accepting an invitation from Afghanistan to mediate, despite new overtures from the Taliban.
He said he received a letter today from Zaeef, inviting him to meet with high-ranking Taliban officials. The letter "does not increase my inclination to go," he said.
Last week, a council of Afghan clerics decided to ask bin Laden to leave Afghanistan, but only of his free will and at a time of his choosing. Soon afterward, Taliban officials said that he had vanished and that they didn't know where he was.
Thursday, however, Zaeef said, "Osama has now received the . . . recommendations," according to the Taliban news agency. "We have not lost Osama, but he is out of sight of the people."
The Taliban's conciliatory moves appeared to be eleventh-hour efforts to forestall a foreign military attack.
Officials in Washington have said repeatedly that it's too late for any negotiation concerning bin Laden and that the Taliban would face a U.S. assault if it doesn't turn him over.
Despite the new gestures by the Taliban, its supreme religious leader, Omar, publicly threatened Thursday that any Afghan who collaborated with a U.S. intervention in Afghanistan would be "treated like those who were brought in by the Communists."
On this day in 1996, Taliban fighters swept into Kabul and rounded up officials who had backed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. They dragged the Soviet-installed former president, Najibullah, behind a truck and hung his mutilated corpse from a traffic post.