The United States and the Taliban hurtled towards war Friday as President George W. Bush vowed to punish attacks on US cities and the Afghan militia spurned calls to expel terror suspect Osama bin Laden.
Washington issued orders to mobilize its crack special forces as a vast armada of naval and air power converged on the seas off the south Asian coast and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians fled in fear of imminent attack.
"I have called the armed forces to alert, and there is a reason: The hour is coming when America will act," Bush told US lawmakers in a speech in which he vowed justice would be done for the September 11 kamikaze attacks on US cities.
The president warned the Taliban that unless it handed over its "guest" and ally, Saudi radical Osama bin Laden, and the leaders of his Al-Qaeda terrorist network, it would face devastating military action.
"They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate," Bush told the US Congress.
Bush's call was met with defiance from the Taliban, the radical Islamic militia which controls most of Afghanistan with the help of bin Laden's international network of mainly Arab fighters.
The Taliban's representative in Pakistan, Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Friday that Bush's fighting talk would not alter their attitude.
"There is no change in our stand toward Osama. Handing him over to America or forcing him out of the country is an insult to Islam," Zaeef said.
A White House spokesman responded to Zaeef's statement with a warning that Bush's demand was "non-negotiable".
More than 6,800 people are missing or dead after hijackers suspected of working for bin Laden on September 11 crashed four airliners into New York's World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
The attacks caused vast economic shockwaves, forced tens of thousands of job cuts in the world airline industry, sent global stock markets plummeting and threatened to tip the world into recession.
The credit rating agency Standard and Poors said Friday that leading insurers and reinsurers faced total losses of at least $14 billion and that the figure could rise significantly.
European stocks continued to suffer after a dire day on Wall Street, with the Frankfurt exchange nearing a four year low and every single equity listed on London's FTSE 100 index losing value.
"The notion of a war tipping the world into recession is in these valuations - and a good deal more," said Richard Kersley, an economist with Credit Suisse First Boston in London.
Asia was not spared. Hong Kong share prices hit a three year low and shares in Singapore and Tokyo tumbled from the opening.
The Financial Times said insurance underwriters would cancel cover for war liabilities from next week in a move that could ground many airlines, already facing crisis after a post-attack slump in bookings.
As the industrialized world continued to suffer from the after-effects of the attacks and worries about impending conflict, aid agencies warned of a humanitarian disaster brewing in Afghanistan.
Pakistan braced itself for the arrival of more than 1.5 million refugees fleeing from an impending attack and a three-year drought; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said 15,000 had crossed the border in the past week despite Pakistani attempts to block them.
"The people are very weak now. It only takes a little push and a lot of them will go," UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan told AFP, explaining that emergency measures were being put into place in a country which already hosts more than two million displaced Afghans.
Bush has vowed to use every means to "smoke out" bin Laden and bring him to justice, but speculation mounted in Pakistan that the 44-year-old multimillionaire had already slipped the noose being drawn around Afghanistan.
A Pakistani daily, The News, said bin Laden left on Monday, before a meeting of Afghan clerics that ended with a call for the Taliban to ask him to leave voluntarily.
The Moslem clerics' request was judged insufficient by Washington to head off the threat of military action, and the Taliban side-stepped the ruling that Zaeef described as a "suggestion" and not a binding edict.
Pakistan's military regime, once the Taliban's closest ally, has, along with almost every other country in the region, supported US calls for a coalition against terrorism, but anti-American protests spread across the region.
A strike called by Islamic radicals brought the Indian-controlled half of the disputed Kashmir region to a halt despite pleas by the main separatist groups for Muslims to stand by Islamabad.
In Karachi, police baton-charged and fired tear gas at stone-throwing militants, arresting at least 100 people after a coalition of Islamist parties called for nationwide protests after Friday prayers.
Demonstrations were also planned in Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi, as well as Quetta and Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border.
In Washington, Bush was in no mood for compromise, bluntly warning the countries of the region: "You are with us or you are with the terrorists."
In a message to US armed forces, he said: "The hour is coming when America will act, and you will make us proud."
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani Thursday upped the toll of the airliner attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center by 900 to 6,574 dead and missing, bringing the combined toll from the attacks to 6,807.
"The evidence we have gathered all point to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaeda ... and its leader - a person named Osama bin Laden," Bush said.
The US army's special operations command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina - home of the airborne Rangers and Delta Force commandos - said it had received orders to mobilize some of its troops for active service.
Two US aircraft carrier battle groups are in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea and two more are on their way to the region with their escort ships, including vessels bringing 2,200 Marines.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in Washington Thursday, vowed London would back Bush "without hesitation" and NATO Secretary General George Robertson also backed the call for bin Laden to be handed over.
Other European allies, plus long-time rivals Russia and China, have given strong but qualified support to the idea of taking on Islamic radical networks.
French President Jacques Chirac, who met Bush Tuesday, and Russia's Vladimir Putin said the UN Security Council should take an active role in coordinating the global fight against terrorism.
EU leaders prepared for a one-day emergency summit in Brussels to reaffirm their solidarity with the US and stake out a common position on terrorism -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)