Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said Sunday that he would guarantee the safety of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar if Omar agreed to negotiate for a peaceful settlement of the country's worsening conflict.
Omar, a fugitive with a $10 million American bounty on his head, has been in hiding since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, and is believed by Western intelligence agencies to be living somewhere in the region of Quetta in western Pakistan.
At a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Karzai coupled his offer of safe passage with a warning to the Western nations that support his government. He said if they opposed an assurance of safety for Omar they would have to remove Karzai as president or withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials on Sunday were skeptical of the proposal, although they did not reject it outright.
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Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Omar has yet to demonstrate “a willingness to negotiate.”
“We're not seeing any indication from Mullah Omar that he is ready to renounce violence, break all ties to al-Qaida and support the Afghan government and Constitution,” Johndroe said.
Karzai's offer added a new element to his appeal for the Taliban to open talks to end the seven years of fighting since the Taliban government was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.
But he told the news conference that there was a long way to go before a safety guarantee for Omar would become a practical issue.