Hundreds of Islamic clerics met in the rocket-damaged Presidential Palace in Kabul today to decide whether to extradite terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden or to declare a holy war against the United States if its forces attack Afghanistan.
Dozens of Taliban soldiers armed with rocket-launchers and Kalashnikov rifles stood guard outside the giant cement walls that surround the palace, lined with gaping holes from years of fighting in Kabul, the capital.
Barely a few yards from the palace is the location where the Taliban rulers hanged Afghanistan’s former communist president when they took power in 1996.
As many as 1,000 clerics from across the country, some driving hundreds of miles along dirt roads, travelled to the city to help the hard-line Islamic Taliban leadership in Afghanistan decide its next step regarding the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire and an exile from his own country, is the key suspect in the case, and Pakistan officials met Taliban leaders in Afghanistan this week to discuss the US demand to extradite him for prosecution.
The officials returned to Islamabad on Tuesday with no agreement.
However, they said the Taliban was considering the possibility of extraditing bin Laden to a country other than the United States, if the Taliban receive international recognition of its Government, and if the United Nations drops sanctions that it has imposed against Afghanistan.
The Taliban, an Islamic militia that rules most of the country, is only formally recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Taliban, which rules Afghanistan according to a strict interpretation of the Koran, have been placed under economic sanctions twice by the United Nations to press earlier US demands to hand over bin Laden for trial.
The United States also believes bin Laden has played a role in a number of devastating attacks, including the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa in which 231 people were killed.
The Taliban have consistently refused to extradite bin Laden, calling him a ‘‘guest’’ and saying that to hand him over to non-Muslims would betray a tenet of Islam.
On Monday, the Taliban said that God would protect it if the world tried to ‘‘set fire’’ to Afghanistan for sheltering bin Laden, who is accused of leading terrorist cells around the world from his sanctuary and training camps in Afghanistan.
The Taliban broadcast on Tuesday also called on all Muslims to wage holy war on America if it attacked the poor and war-ravaged central Asian country.
‘‘If America attacks our homes, it is necessary for all Muslims, especially for Afghans, to wage a holy war,’’ Mullah Mohammed Hasan Akhund, the deputy Taliban leader, said, according to state-run Radio Shariat.
‘‘God is on our side, and if the world’s people try to set fire to Afghanistan, God will protect us and help us.’’
Since taking control of most of Afghanistan, the Taliban have declared holy wars against the northern-based anti-Taliban alliance, Russia and Iran, but never the United States.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has enraged some politicians and clerics in his country by agreeing to provide US forces with access to his country’s air space and land in a proposed attack on Afghanistan, was scheduled to make a televised address to his people tonight.
The Taliban’s foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, has condemned the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
But he also said it would have been impossible for bin Laden to carry out such assaults because he lacks the facilities for such an elaborate operation.
Since then, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who has declared himself head of all Muslims, has defended bin Laden and accused the United States of pointing the finger in his direction because its investigators have been unable to come up with a real suspect.
Many Pakistanis living along the 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan promised to join the jihad against America, and possibly their own government, if there were retaliatory strikes.
On Tuesday, some 3,000 people in the Pakistani city of Karachi demonstrated near a mosque that runs a religious school many Taliban leaders attended, warning of more attacks. Many carried posters of bin Laden portrayed as a hero.
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans were fleeing the country amid fears of retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan because of bin Laden’s presence.
‘‘We are worried that hundreds of thousands of Afghans have left the cities and are headed for Pakistan,’’ Riaz Mohammed Khan, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Office said.
Thousands more have been gathering on islands along a river that marks much of Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan, Russian border officials said.