WASHINGTON — President Bush rejected an offer from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to turn over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to a neutral third country yesterday as an eighth day of bombing made clear that military coercion, not diplomacy, remains the crux of U.S. policy toward the regime.
"They must have not heard: There's no negotiations," Bush said at the White House after returning from Camp David.
That brusque dismissal came on a day when Attorney General John Ashcroft warned in television appearances that nearly 200 people with potential links to the Sept. 11 attacks — some of whom he thinks probably are terrorists themselves — remain at large in the United States.
National-security adviser Condoleezza Rice sounded a more reassuring note. On CBS' "60 Minutes," she dismissed speculation that terrorists may have a nuclear bomb. "We have no credible evidence at this point of a specific threat of that kind," she said.
Bush's words were a response to remarks by Afghan Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir, who said in Jalalabad that if the U.S. halts bombing, "then we could negotiate" turning bin Laden over to another country, so long as it was one that would not "come under pressure from the United States."
Bush has rebuffed similar offers, and administration officials rejected the latest move as a desperation-driven delaying tactic.
Bush repeated his stance that to halt the bombing, the Taliban regime must unconditionally "turn (bin Laden) over. Turn his cohorts over. Turn any hostage they hold over. Destroy all the terrorist camps."
Drawing a line in colloquial terms, Bush added: "There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty. Turn him over. If they want us to stop our military operations, they just gotta meet my conditions, and when I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations."
Bush's hostage reference to eight foreign-aid workers held in Afghanistan was notable because until yesterday he had avoided calling them that, instead using language like "unjustly imprisoned." His decision to strip away euphemism suggested the rising intensity of the war on the Taliban.
U.S. warplanes continued to pound multiple targets in Afghanistan, setting the stage for what defense officials say could be helicopter assaults and Special Forces raids in the days ahead.
Bombs fell during daylight hours on the southern city of Kandahar, headquarters of the country's ruling Taliban militia, and heavy bombing of the Afghan capital, Kabul, began as night fell. The Taliban also reported bombing in the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.
Reports emerging from the country indicated the Taliban were struggling to hold ground against the opposition Northern Alliance.
At the Pentagon, a spokesman said the raids were designed "to keep the pressure on over there. That's what we'll continue to do each day."
Defense officials had no comment on Taliban claims that U.S. bombing had killed 200 people in Karam, a village in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan.
Taliban representatives took foreign journalists to the village, marking the first time since the bombing began Oct. 7 that foreigners had been escorted into areas controlled by the Taliban.
The latest shower of bombs destroyed Kabul's international telephone exchange, military officials said, eliminating one of the nation's last ways of communicating outside its borders.
A U.S. military official overseas said the bombing of Afghanistan has entered a "cleanup mode."
U.S. warplanes have destroyed nearly all of the targets originally assigned to them, including militant-training camps and weapons-storage areas, said the captain of the aircraft carrier Enterprise. His identify could not be disclosed under military rules for covering the operation.
Meanwhile, an array of senior Bush administration officials were on yesterday's public-affairs shows, most bearing messages bluntly underscoring the risks facing Americans more than a month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ashcroft said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that authorities have arrested and detained 700 people to date, some with direct associations with the Sept. 11 hijackers, others with more tangential reasons for arousing suspicion or questions.
But he added about 190 people whom authorities want to talk to have not been found.
Rice took the lead in defending the administration on two sensitive points. One is that the United States is courting an anti-American backlash across the Muslim world with its attack on Afghanistan. Pleading for a sense of proportion, Rice said, "You're seeing thousands of people demonstrate in countries that have millions of people."
In addition, she said the administration's effort to replace the Taliban with a coalition government is not a reversal of Bush's stand against "nation building" that he sounded so often during his presidential campaign, when he accused the Clinton administration of foreign-policy naiveté.
"So, there's nothing wrong with nation building, but not when it's done by the American military," she said, implying that international organizations and diplomacy will be used to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. "And that's what the president was speaking to — during the campaign and after."
Meanwhile, Afghan rebel commanders say they are preparing to launch a drive to recapture Kabul within days even without U.S. military help or a political agreement on the shape of a post-Taliban government.
Trucks filled with soldiers and parades of guerrilla fighters on foot headed south in greater numbers this weekend from the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan to the front lines about 25 miles north of the capital.
All told, according to one rebel officer, 6,000 troops have been moved from the Panjshir in the past week as part of a mobilization of 25,000 fighters to assault Kabul.
The rebel commanders' determination to go forward exposes a rift between military and civilian leaders in the Northern Alliance, the fragile coalition of quarrelsome tribes and ethnic groups that has been fighting the ruling Taliban regime for years.
Military commanders have complained angrily in recent days that the United States has not bombed Taliban troops protecting Kabul, and they bristled when told the attack would be postponed while a plan for an interim government was devised.
Material from Reuters, the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.