The Taliban militia on Sunday defied the growing threat of US strikes on Afghanistan and again refused to hand over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, as Washington's war plan fell into place.
"There is no change in our stand," said Abdul Hai Mutmaen, spokesman for Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. "The US demand is not acceptable to any Afghan Muslim and we are also not ready to accept it."
The Islamic regime's defiance, reported by the Afghan Islamic Press agency, appeared to make a US strike against bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terror network and Afghan forces inevitable.
US President George W. Bush holds bin Laden responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on US cities which left more than 6,800 dead and has made his capture the key early goal of a global "war against terrorism".
Reports from Kabul said that Taliban leaders had distributed thousands of Kalashnikov assault rifles to civilians in expectation of an attack, but the noose was tightening around them as a US-led coalition gathered strength.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his approval to US plans to launch attacks from bases in former Soviet Central Asian republics, US officials said.
Moscow's decision came as Afghan neighbor Tajikistan joined the coalition and US warplanes and attack helicopters were reported to be in Uzbekistan.
Pakistan and India have already signaled their support for America, and were rewarded by the lifting of US sanctions imposed on the rival regional powers in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests.
On the western frontier of Afghanistan, Iran has not openly backed the idea of US attacks, but the country is a longtime opponent of the Taliban.
A report in the well-informed Indian daily the Hindu said that Tehran had joined Moscow and New Delhi in a bid to find ways to support the Northern Alliance, an Afghan opposition army locked in civil war with the Taliban.
The paper said India, Russia and Iran "feel that a revived Northern Alliance, backed by a US-led coalition, should spearhead a military assault in Taliban strongholds in Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad."
Northern Alliance forces launched a series of overnight assaults on Taliban controlled areas in the provinces of Samangan, Balkh and Takhar, capturing the Zaare district, 100 kilometers west of the Balkh provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Mutaen said that neighboring countries supporting the US-led coalition would face "serious consequences" and the Taliban has repeatedly warned that any attack on Afghanistan would trigger a holy war.
The militia claimed Sunday to have shot down an unidentified plane in the northern province of Samangan, the second such claim over the weekend.
Neither report has been confirmed, although military sources in Uzbekistan have said unmanned US electronic surveillance planes had arrived at an air base outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent in preparation for an attack on the Taliban.
In addition, US attack helicopters that took part in a joint NATO-Uzbek military exercise earlier this month were still at a military base some 40 kilometers east of Tashkent, they said.
A massive array of US firepower has been deployed to the region.
Two aircraft carrier battle groups are in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, more than 100 extra warplanes have been deployed to the area and two more carriers are on their way.
Some 2,200 Marines have left their US home ports and the army's elite airborne infantry and special forces have been put on alert, reportedly to be ready to drop into Afghanistan and capture bin Laden "dead or alive".
Bin Laden, a 44-year-old Saudi exile and multimillionaire who came to prominence leading Arab volunteers in the war against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, has been linked by Western intelligence agencies to the September 11 attacks.
Four commercial airliners were hijacked by suspected Islamic militants.
Two were crashed into New York's tallest buildings, the twin towers of the World Trade Center, leveling them.
One was smashed into the Pentagon near Washington, demolishing part of the military headquarters, and the fourth crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, apparently falling short of another Washington target.
Some 6,818 people from 40 countries have been reported dead or missing presumed dead following the attacks.
The attacks have triggered a world-wide investigation by police and intelligence agencies, leading to dozens of arrests of alleged members of bin Laden's al-Qaeda (The Base) network.
Stocks plunged after the attacks as the world teetered on the brink of recession, consumer confidence plummeted and the world airline industry was endangered by falling ticket sales and insurance price hikes.
Bush has signed into law a $15-billion deal -- $5 billion in cash and $10 billion in loan guarantees -- to stop battered US airlines from going under after the terrorist attacks.
Bush promised that not only would bin Laden by brought to justice but that the United States would lead a coalition of states in a long-term war against terrorist groups "with a global reach".
Almost every nation in the world rallied to his cause, an unprecedented coalition of support from NATO, the European Union, traditional allies and former enemies, like Russia and China.
But the campaign -- which Bush once controversially dubbed a "crusade" -- has raised tensions in the Islamic world.
Most states have been supportive, but public opinion in the region is volatile and supporters of bin Laden and the Taliban have staged demonstrations against America and their own governments.
US citizens have been advised to stay out of Central Asia and other tense regions, and three Pakistanis were killed Friday during anti-American protests.
In the Gulf area states have been cautious about allowing the United States to use its post Gulf War bases and infrastructure to launch attacks.
Bahrain denied reports that US planes had landed at its airbases and Kuwait said it had not been asked.
US diplomats worked to reassure governments, but a report in the Washington Post said Saudi Arabia had forbidden attacks from its soil.
Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were to meet Sunday in Jeddah to coordinate positions on the war on terrorism.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was to visit Iran on Monday for talks on the situation -- ISLAMABAD (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)