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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Taleban minister's 'peace role' mystery
Afghan refugee
Afghans continue to flee the air strikes
Conflicting reports are emerging from Pakistan as to whether the Taleban foreign minister is attempting to negotiate an end to the US strikes on Afghanistan.

Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil is widely described as a moderate within the Taleban leadership.

The last few days have seen an extraordinary burst of rumour and counter rumour about Mr Muttawakil's activities, most of it emanating from diplomatic sources in Pakistan.

Much of it claims that Mr Muttawakil has been in Pakistan to make offers that would include the handing over of Osama bin Laden for trial.

Nothing has been heard from the foreign minister himself for some time.

Defection claims

The reports began in earnest on Monday, when a news agency in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said Mr Muttawakil had arrived there - and defected from the Taleban.

Taleban Foreign Minister Muttawakil
Muttawakil - the mysteries continue

Such a defection, analysts argue, would be precisely the kind of propaganda coup the United States has been looking for in its war against terrorism.

US and British politicians, as well as the opposition Northern Alliance within Afghanistan, have repeatedly said that there are signs of splits within the Taleban. However, they have failed to produce evidence in support of these claims.

Within minutes the UAE authorities denied Mr Muttawakil was on their territory.

And the Taleban embassy in Islamabad almost simultaneously dismissed the report, saying their foreign minister was inside Afghanistan.

'Islamabad visit'

However, it is widely reported in the Pakistani and foreign press that Mr Muttawakil did visit Islamabad shortly before the arrival there on Monday of US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Air Force AC-130
The air strikes have got heavier

Pakistan's Frontier Post newspaper says he held 90 minutes of talks with the head of Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, Lieutenant General Ehsanul Haq.

Sources close to the Taleban foreign minister say he urged General Haq to persuade the United States to suspend its air attacks on Afghanistan.

That, the paper reports, would have allowed moderates in the Taleban to press its hardline leader, Mullah Omar, to reconsider his policies.

According to the Frontier Post, many moderate Taleban leaders are aghast at the results of Mullah Omar's policies, but it does not spell out which policies in particular.

Nevertheless, before Mr Powell's arrival in Islamabad, the Taleban moderated their conditions for the handing over of Bin Laden.

While still insisting the US must provide hard evidence of his involvement in the 11 September attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Taleban dropped their insistence that he be tried in an Islamic country.

The Guardian newspaper in London goes one step further. It says Mr Muttawakil even dropped the demand for hard evidence in meetings which included staff of the US intelligence service, the CIA.

If Mr Muttawakil ever did hold such meetings, there are no signs yet of the US accepting his appeal for a break in the bombing.

If anything, the air strikes have become heavier in recent days.

Hard information about Mr Muttawakil's whereabouts continues to be noticeable by its absence.

On Wednesday morning, Reuters news agency quoted an official with the exiled Afghan king - a possible focal point for any post-Taleban settlement - as saying Mr Muttawakil had left Afghanistan and made contact with the king's advisers.

A short while later, the Associated Press news agency quoted exactly the same official saying the Reuters report was "absolutely wrong".

The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"Kabul appears to have been taking a heavy pounding"
See also:

17 Oct 01 | South Asia
Powell gets Indian backing
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
Taleban face civil unrest
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition 'seizes key airport'
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
Karam raid examined
16 Oct 01 | Americas
Profile: AC-130 gunship
14 Oct 01 | South Asia
Millions at risk in Afghan crisis
16 Oct 01 | South Asia
India issues Kashmir warning
17 Oct 01 | Americas
Recordings reveal hijack confusion
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