ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Taliban government of Afghanistan delayed issuing a final response yesterday to U.S. demands that it surrender Osama bin Laden, but Muslim clerics there and in Pakistan talked of resisting if the United States attacked.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's leader, is scheduled to address the country today after having held meetings for several days with religious leaders and opinion makers to build support for his decision to back U.S. military action.
Religious leaders called for a nationwide strike Friday to protest U.S. pressure on Afghanistan, and there are concerns that an American military strike would spark mass protests and increase the danger of terrorist attacks by Taliban supporters.
Washington has named bin Laden, who lives as a "guest" of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, as the chief suspect in last week's devastating attacks on New York and Washington. It has vowed to track him down and punish his protectors.
A Pakistani delegation that traveled to Kandahar, the city that the Taliban use as their headquarters, and Kabul, the Afghan capital, to persuade the Taliban to surrender bin Laden flew home yesterday with no more than a hope that a council of senior clerics will make a decision this week on his fate.
"Our delegation conveyed in stark terms the gravity of the situation and what the world expects from the Afghan leadership," Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Kahn said at a news conference. "We hope they will make decisions which are in the interest of the Afghan people."
The Taliban apparently did not rule out the possibility that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks but demanded proof of his involvement before handing him over.
"Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him," Information Minister Qudrutullah Jamal told the Reuters news agency by telephone from Kabul. "We told [the Pakistani delegation] to give us proof that he did it because without that how can we give him up?"
It is unclear how the Taliban's Islamic Council will debate bin Ladin's fate. In the past, the council of Muslim clerics has usually ratified the views of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. It endorsed Omar's decision this year to demolish ancient Buddhist statues despite world condemnation.
"These were rubber-stamp bodies," said Najmuddin A. Shaikh, a retired Pakistani foreign secretary and former ambassador to the United States. "Maybe it will be different, but it doesn't bode well because of past precedent."
Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund, the deputy Taliban leader, was quoted by government radio as threatening a holy war against the United States in the case of an American attack.
"If America attacks our homes, it is necessary for all Muslims, especially for Afghans, to wage a holy war," he was quoted as saying. "God is on our side, and if the world's people try to set fire to Afghanistan, God will protect us and help us."
An influential Muslim cleric in Pakistan added to the pressures here by issuing a fatwa, or religious decree, saying that Muslims were
obliged to oppose Pakistan's cooperation with "nonbelievers" such as the United States. Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai was quoted as saying it was "un-Islamic" for any Muslim country to participate in an attack against Afghanistan or to aid the attackers.
Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, was the scene of a pro-Taliban demonstration but remained relatively quiet. The U.S. State Department authorized nonemergency personnel at the American Embassy and their families to leave if they wished yesterday. It also told those at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, near the Afghan border in the Khyber Pass, that they could move to the capital if they wished.
"We're not being forced to evacuate," embassy spokesman Mark Wentworth said. "We're saying: If the situation is such that you are concerned, you can leave."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said a number of employees had expressed interest in getting out of the country. The Pakistani government says it has shut border trade with Afghanistan with the exception of shipments of food and some other goods. The northern border crossing in the Khyber Pass - one of only two crossings with Afghanistan - has been closed to refugees for almost a week.
Tens of thousands of Afghans are reported to be leaving the nation's cities for the countryside to stay with relatives in anticipation of U.S. airstrikes.