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ABUL: US forces massed around Afghanistan on Saturday as President George W. Bush pressed on with plans for a military strike on terrorist bases and a defiant Taliban militia warned of holy war.
Bush was to hold a video-conference on attack plans with his National Security Council from his Camp David country retreat as powerful bombers were deployed to bases within striking distance of Afghanistan, officials said.
In Uzbekistan, military officials said that US transport planes had landed at a military airfield at Tuzel, about 15 km from Tashkent, raising the prospect of a US attack from central Asia.
South and west of Afghanistan an armada of US warships was to be reinforced by B-52 heavy bombers and high-altitude spy planes stationed at air bases in friendly countries, an air force official said.
"They will be moving shortly if they haven't started," the official said, while White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The president has made it abundantly clear that this nation is preparing for war."
In Kabul, the Taliban regime insisted that it could not bend to Washington's demand that it hand over Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born radical said by Washington to be behind the September 11 terror attacks on US cities.
"If Osama leaves of his own accord, nobody will stop him. But handing him over to the United States is impossible," said Abdul Hai Mutmaen, a spokesman for the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel said: "If the US attacks Afghanistan, we will have no option but to pursue jehad (holy war)." The Taliban's continued defiance put it firmly in the firing line in Bush's "war on terrorism," and exposed it to massive reprisals from the US military force converging on the fragile and unstable, war-wracked region.
Bush has vowed to use every military and political means to hunt down Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network of Islamic radicals, which Washington blames for the suicide attacks on New York and Washington that left more than 6,800 dead.
Washington has built an unprecedented coalition of international supporters for what Bush has dubbed his "war on terrorism", but the issue of where US jets and troops would be based before launching attacks could still raise tensions.
Hardline Islamic supporters of Bin Laden held protests in Pakistan and other countries which have given the US mission their blessing, and The Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia has refused the Americans the use of air bases on its soil to launch attacks. The Pentagon could not confirm this.
But if the reports from Uzbekistan are confirmed, it would be a sign that Washington has succeeded in convincing at least one of Afghanistan's northern neighbours to join the rapidly growing group of countries offering support.
Diplomatic sources said the United States also had helicopters, used in earlier in joint exercises between Uzbekistan and NATO forces, stationed in Chirchik, 40 km from Tashkent. The support of Moscow would be a key to securing the support of the former Soviet republics in Asia. Bush held talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Saturday, the Interfax news agency reported.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia said they had no plans to cut links with the Taliban, but both have expressed their support for Washington, and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has promised assistance to US forces. The United States also secured the support of Turkey, the only majority Islamic member of NATO, which said it would allow US transport planes to use its bases and air space.
Washington's next diplomatic target will be Iran, with whom it has not had diplomatic relations since 1980. Tehran is no friend of the Taliban, but is a traditional US foe and has opposed military action.
Iran said it had received a message from Washington. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, whose government has been Bush's strongest ally in the crisis, was due to visit Monday with a message from Washington.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), September 22, 2001