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Bush Rejects Afghan Clerics' Call - 2001-09-20


President Bush is rejecting a call by Afghan Muslim clerics that suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden be allowed to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. The Bush administration says Osama bin Laden and other leaders of his group must be turned over to face trial for their alleged involvement in last week's terrorist attacks.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says President Bush sees "nothing positive" in the clerics' proposal that Afghanistan's Taleban leaders ask Osama bin Laden to leave the country voluntarily within what the clerics call " a reasonable time."

Mr. Fleischer says the proposal does not meet America's requirement that they close terrorist bases and hand over suspected terrorist leaders. Mr. Fleischer says the edict issued by Muslim clerics after two days of meetings in Kabul would only allow Mr. bin Laden to leave one safe haven for another.

President Bush says Mr. bin Laden is the prime suspect in last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Taleban leaders say Mr. bin Laden should not be extradited without proper evidence linking him to the crime.

Muslim clerics say the attacks should be the subject of independent investigations by the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Conference. The clerics' edict expressed sadness over the loss of life in the United States, but said Washington should not respond by attacking Afghanistan. If it does, the country's religious leaders say there will be a holy war against America.

President Bush says the campaign against terrorism is not a fight with Islam or the people of Afghanistan, but he says the United State will hunt down terrorists and those who help them. Mr. Fleischer repeated that threat, saying anyone who harbors terrorists will find themselves in harm's way.

President Bush continued to build an international coalition against terrorism Thursday in telephone calls with the presidents of Chile and Argentina, and a White House meeting with the Saudi foreign minister. Mr. Bush also welcomes British Prime Minister Tony Blair Thursday evening. The prime minister will be in attendance later for the president's speech before the U.S. Congress.

White House officials say President Bush hopes to explain to Americans why people would want to attack the United States, and what sort of enemy the country is fighting, describing the coming conflict as a battle between freedom and fear.

The president is also expected to ask for patience, as he says the conflict will be a long one.

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