Bin Laden's Lair under Control, Claims Taliban; AFGHANISTAN: US Not Convinced by Talks Offer

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Byline: GAVIN CORDON

AFGHANISTAN'S Taliban rulers claimed last night that Osama bin Laden was under their control and called on the United States to open negotiations to lift the threat of military action against their country.

The surprise move by the Taliban, which had previously said it did not know where bin Laden was hiding, drew a dusty response in Washington, with Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying bluntly he did not believe it.

The Taliban's claim was made by its ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, at a news conference in Islamabad.

"He's in Afghanistan, " he said.

"He is under our control.

"Wherever he is he's in a secret place, but that doesn't mean he is out of the control of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He's in a place which cannot be located by anyone."

A spokesman added that only the "security people" knew bin Laden's hiding place.

Mr Zaeef said the Taliban would be prepared to open negotiations with the US on handing him over if America produced its evidence linking him to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

"We will respect their negotiations and that might change things. If they attack without any evidence or unless this case goes through the proper court process any attack will be a terrorist attack."

In Washington, the White House chief of staff Andrew Card dismissed the offer, saying, "The President has said we're not negotiating."

Mr Rumsfeld said, "It was just a few days ago that they said they didn't know where he was, so I have no reason to believe anything a Taliban representative would say."

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said intelligence had established beyond doubt that Saudi-born millionaire bin Laden was involved in the US attacks and action must be taken to wipe out his al-Qaida terror network as the first phase of the war against global terrorism.

"I have seen absolutely powerful, incontrovertible evidence of his link to the events of September 11, " he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.

"We can certainly eradicate the bin Laden network and we should do that. …