ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - In a desperate 11th-hour appeal to halt U.S. attacks, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban offered Sunday to detain terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden and try him under Islamic law if the United States makes a formal request.
The Bush administration, which has insisted that Afghanistan hand over bin Laden and his lieutenants, quickly rejected the Taliban proposal.
``The president's demands are clear and nonnegotiable,'' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban said they have sent thousands of troops to the border with Uzbekistan, whose president has allowed U.S. troops use of an air base for the anti-terrorism campaign.
``We have deployed our forces there at all important places. This is the question of our honor, and we will never bow before the Americans and will fight to the last,'' said a Taliban defense ministry source, quoted Sunday by the independent Afghan Islamic Press, which has connections to the Kabul regime.
Taliban claims about sending troops to the Uzbekistan border could not be independently verified.
However, Russia's Interfax news agency reported Saturday that Taliban troops were moving long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers toward the border. More than 10 guns and rocket launchers had moved within range of the Uzbek border town of Termez, Interfax said, quoting Afghan opposition sources.
The Taliban are estimated to have some 40,000 fighters - around a quarter of them from bin Laden's organization - and many of those are involved in fighting a coalition of opposition forces in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban's enemies had made little progress against the larger, better-armed Taliban, but their fortunes have been bolstered since the Sept. 11 attacks with a decision by Russia to step up weapons shipments.
Even as they thundered, though, Taliban leaders looked for ways to defuse the crisis, which has isolated them from the world and alienated them from neighboring Pakistan, their only major ally. Pakistan has pledged full support for the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told reporters that ``Islamic laws have been implemented in Afghanistan, and it is the appropriate place for Osama to be put on trial.''
``Detention is not a problem,'' he added. ``If someone comes and gives the allegation against him, we would detain him. But if we detain him without allegations, he will say to us `where is America? Why have you detained me?'''
Zaeef's offer was similar to one made last month by the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and indicated the Afghan leadership's desperation to avoid punishing military strikes for refusing to hand over bin Laden.
Zaeef said the proceedings could begin even before the United States had offered any evidence to support its claims that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
``Under Islamic law, we can put him on trial according to allegations raised against him and then the evidence would be provided to the court,'' Zaeef said. ``It is up to them to come to us. It is their problem,'' referring to the United States.
In Washington, the White House said that President Bush's four demands stand: that the Taliban turn over bin Laden, that Afghanistan close terror training camps, that those camps be open for inspection and that the ruling militia turn over eight aid workers in custody, including two Americans.
The United States has repeatedly rejected Taliban offers to negotiate over bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996. Appeals by Afghanistan for help in the Islamic world have received little support from governments although Muslim parties and movements here and elsewhere oppose any U.S. attack.
Zaeef accused the United States of dismissing Islamic laws as irrelevant.
``While we are ready to put Osama on trial in an Islamic court in Afghanistan, America is still thinking of attacking Afghanistan,'' Zaeef said. ``It means America has no respect for Islamic laws. They want to show Islamic laws as irrelevant.''
The United States, however, is in no mood for compromise.
On Saturday, Bush warned the Taliban to surrender bin Laden or face the consequences.
``The Taliban has been given the opportunity to surrender all the terrorists in Afghanistan and to close down their camps and operations,'' Bush said.
Washington has also rejected Afghanistan's attempt to use the jailed foreign aid workers as bargaining chips to pressure the United States to halt its planned anti-terrorist offensive.
The eight aid workers in Kabul - four Germans, two Americans and two Australians - were arrested in August on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
``The president has made clear from the beginning that the Taliban needs to release the aid workers and that it is time for action, not negotiation,'' said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.
On Sunday, Taliban authorities released British journalist Yvonne Ridley, arrested last month in Afghanistan, and Zaeef said she would be handed over to British diplomats Monday, presumably at the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Pakistan, mindful of domestic opposition to the U.S.-led coalition, placed under house arrest Sunday a pro-Taliban cleric who has led protests against the United States - including a more than 5,000-strong demonstration on Saturday.
Heavily armed police and paramilitary troops were stationed at the house of Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, or the Party of Islamic Cleric, in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan, according to Abdul Jalil Jan, deputy secretary of the group.
``The arrest has been made at the behest of America,'' Jan said. ``But
it won't dampen our spirits.''