Bin Laden: Resist the Christian Crusade

WASHINGTON/KABUL, Pakistan -- Afghanistan's ruling Taliban said Thursday it had repulsed the first coordinated air and ground attack by U.S. and opposition forces and was also holding several American citizens, while Osama bin Laden urged Pakistani Muslims to defend Islam.

Bin Laden said in a letter broadcast by Qatar's al-Jazeera television that the U.S. campaign to punish Afghanistan for harboring him was a Christian crusade.

"Osama bin Laden called on Muslims in Pakistan to stand in the face of what he called a Christian crusade against Islam," a Jazeera newsreader quoted the letter as saying.

"Muslims in Afghanistan are being subjected to killing and the Pakistani government is standing beneath the Christian banner," the letter was quoted by the newsreader as saying.

With the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan starting in mid-November, Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a key moderate Muslim leader Washington is keen to have on its side, urged a military pause for both Ramadan and Christmas.

Amid warnings the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan might be perceived as a crusade against Islam, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said he was in favor of limited bombing through Ramadan as a cease-fire might be used by the Taliban and bin Laden's al-Qaida network to regroup.

In London, the British government on Thursday gave its clearest signal yet that its troops will see action in Afghanistan. "We may need to deploy forces within Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told Parliament.

The U.S Defense Department denied a Taliban claim to have shot down an U.S. aircraft near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. "That is simply not true. We have not lost any aircraft," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

In Kabul, the Taliban said it repulsed the first joint air and ground attack by U.S. and opposition forces in the north, but lost a hydropower plant to U.S. bombing in the south.

The air raids blacked out Afghanistan's second city, Kandahar, which is the powerbase of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

One alliance source said an attack had taken place, but a spokesman played down its importance. "I reject the launch of our infantry attack. We will stage it within two or three days," said Mohammed Ashraf Nadeem by telephone from the front. "Last night it was only an exchange of artillery and heavy fire."

But the Taliban proclaimed a victory.

"Last night the opposition staged three massive offensives on Bazari Baluch around Dara-i-Suf in coordination with U.S. bombing," said Taliban Information Ministry official Qari Fazil Rabi. "They achieved nothing and there is no change in our positions," he said.

Rabi said the joint attack was the first since the start of the U.S. military campaign 26 days ago.

The Taliban also said it was holding Americans.

"We have a few American citizens with us. They have been arrested," said Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. "Their identities are not known so far. The investigation is going on," he said in Islamabad.

The envoy, the isolated Taliban's sole ambassador, had no information on how or when the U.S. citizens were detained.