Islamabad, Pakistan Taliban rulers, vowing to "fight to the last" against those who side with the United States, say they have sent thousands of troops to the border with Uzbekistan, whose president has allowed U.S. troops use an air base for the anti-terrorism campaign.
But in an eleventh-hour appeal to halt U.S. attacks, the 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 U.S. administration immediately rejected the proposal. "The president's demands are clear and nonnegotiable," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
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?'"
A Taliban defense ministry source, quoted Sunday by the independent Afghan Islamic Press, which has connections to the Kabul regime, said: "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."
The international vise against the Taliban is tightening as the rigorously Islamic militia continues refusing to hand over Saudi exile bin Laden, top suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. On Saturday. U.S. President George W. Bush, emphasizing that "our enemy is not Islam," told the Taliban their situation is grave.
"Full warning has been given and time is running out," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
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 already fighting a coalition of opposition forces in northern Afghanistan. Its 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.
Opposition spokesman Mohammad Ashraf Nadim claimed the alliance gained ground Saturday in fighting in the northern provinces of Balkh and Samaghan, which border Uzbekistan. The claims could not be independently verified.
On Saturday, a U.S.-marked aircraft arrived in Uzbekistan one day after President Islam Karimov granted permission for the United States to use an Uzbek air base. A local police officer said three or four planes had already landed.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner refused to comment, in keeping with U.S. policy of not discussing troop movements.
Uzbekistan has agreed to let the United States station troops on its soil but not to launch offensive operations. On Saturday, a senior Taliban official, Amir Khan Muttaqi, threatened to send troops into the Central Asian neighbor if that country participated in any U.S.-led attack.
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.
Afghan authorities confirmed Sunday they had released British journalist Yvonne Ridley, 43, a reporter for the Sunday Express, Taliban Information Minister Qatradullah Jamal told The Associated Press in Kabul that Ridley, arrested last month inside Afghanistan with two Afghan guides, had been freed. It was unclear when she would leave the country.
Taliban authorities had said Ridley would be investigated on possible espionage charges but would be deported if she were found to be a journalist. "This lady came illegally to Afghanistan. She had no passport. She entered illegally wearing Afghan dress," Jamal said.
The Taliban also offered to release eight aid workers, including two Americans, if Washington stopped its threats and began negotiations. The White House abruptly rejected the offer, and spokeswoman Claire Buchan called on the regime to release the aid workers immediately.
The eight were arrested in August on charges of preaching Christianity _ a serious charge in this strictly Muslim country. Sixteen Afghan employees of the German-based Shelter Now International organization were also arrested.
On Saturday afternoon, residents of the Afghan capital rushed into the streets when Taliban gunners fired anti-aircraft guns and two missiles at a lone, silver-colored aircraft.
The gunners missed their mark, and Taliban authorities admitted the plane's altitude was beyond the range of their air defenses. Afghanistan's airspace is closed to all traffic, and the Taliban said the aircraft was a spy plane.
On Saturday night, Taliban radio broadcast poems whose lyrics condemned America. There was no accompanying music, which the Taliban have banned.
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."