US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said Thursday he had received an invitation from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia to mediate peace with Washington but a senior State Department official poured cold water on the plan.
Jackson, 59, who has a long history of mediating disputes between Washington and hostile foreign governments, said he was pondering the invitation he received Wednesday from a diplomat representing the Taliban.
"I was surprised that I heard from them," Jackson said in an interview on NBC television. "I really don't want to go."
He added, however, that any mission he headed should be carried out by "a very credible delegation with sufficient intelligence."
Washington accuses the Taliban of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born multimillionaire suspected of masterminding the September 11 terrorist strikes on the United States that killed nearly 7,000 people.
A US military buildup close to Afghanistan's borders is backing Washington's demand that the Taliban hand him over or face war.
Jackson said he had discussed the invitation with US Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who were "not at all hostile" toward the proposed mission.
However, Powell's deputy at the State Department, Richard Armitage, said Washington had no interest in dialogue with the Taliban and Jackson was unlikely to receive any encouragement from the government.
"We're not interested in a dialogue," he said. "We're interested in action and no negotiation. The demands are not subject to dialogue."
He suggested that the government would not attempt to prevent Jackson from meeting the Taliban, however, adding, "I think he'll make his own decision."
Armitage, speaking on NBC television, said the Taliban appeared to be seeking ways to stall handing over bin Laden.
"It seems to me they're trying to delay making a decision on their own," he said.
Jackson told CBS television that Mohammed Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban at the embassy in Pakistan, had called him and lobbied for Jackson to lead a peace delegation to meet with the Taliban.
In Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, denied the mediation request had come from Afghanistan's rulers.
"We have not invited him, but he offered to mediate, and our leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has accepted this offer," Zaeef told the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based private news agency.
"He has ordered the authorities to extend cooperation if Jesse Jackson visits Afghanistan. We will have no objection."
Jackson, speaking on NBC, said he did not know when he would decide on traveling but added that he will talk to "a number of people here and around the world" on Thursday and would travel "only if there is a good chance of progress."
He said he had already contacted former president Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for advice.
"I happen to think patience and persistence and coalition building" -- the current path that US President George W. Bush appears to be taking -- is "the right path," he said.
He noted that Bush had left open both military and diplomatic options in trying to overcome the impasse with the Taliban over the fate of bin Laden, who heads the al-Qaeda network of militants -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
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