KABUL (Reuters) - Frightened Afghans were fleeing the capital Friday, haunted by fears that the United States would soon unleash military strikes in retaliation for the devastating terror attacks on New York and Washington.
With U.S. officials making it clear they believed Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden was linked to the attacks and that the ruling Taliban were protecting him, ordinary Afghans feared the worst.
But the Taliban vowed revenge ``by other means'' should Washington attack, and their fundamentalist clerics used Friday prayers to call on the World's Muslims to unite against the United States.
``Oh Muslims of the world, we should unite together if the United States attacks us,'' one cleric told the faithful at a Kabul mosque.
The theme was repeated across the capital.
``America has announced war against us for its enmity with Allah and for imposing its corrupt ideology,'' said another sermon broadcast on loudspeakers.
``We won't die without His will so don't be frightened.''
But ordinary Afghans were more timorous.
``In a situation like this you feel that death is creeping up on you as we don't know when the attacks will take place,'' said a baker as he prepared to flee the capital. ``I am leaving Kabul with my family and can't wait any longer.
Although figures were not available, one resident said any Afghans with relatives in the countryside had left or were making plans to do so.
They have been following the aftermath of Tuesday's attacks mostly by listening to foreign radio stations as television is banned. The few international phone lines have been cut for security reasons.
NO STRANGERS TO CONFLICT
Although no strangers to conflict after 23 years of war, even ordinary Afghans have been shocked at the action of suicide pilots hijacking passenger jets and flying them into U.S. landmarks. Thousands of people have been killed.
``We don't suggest that America should ignore what happened to their people and country, but keep in mind our fragile condition too,'' said one man as he prepared to leave.
Kabul has already come under fire this week, when anti-Taliban forces used helicopter gunships to hit the city's airport after an assassination attempt -- also linked to bin Laden -- on its military commander.
The Taliban's secretive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, broke his silence Friday by insisting neither bin Laden nor Afghanistan was capable of planning such sophisticated operations.
``Training of pilots is the work of a running government,'' he said in a statement read by his ambassador to neighboring Pakistan in Islamabad. ``Osama has no pilots, and where did he train them? In Afghanistan there is no such possibility for the training.''
But significantly, the statement by the Taliban's leader -- who rarely gives interviews, has never been filmed or photographed and has met just two non-Muslims in his entire life -- failed to condemn the U.S. attacks or even sympathize with relatives of the victims.
The Taliban's official spokesman was even more defiant.
``We will take revenge if America attacks through different means,'' Abdul Hai Mutamaen told reporters in the capital.
The Taliban appeared to be battening down the hatches, with their Pakistan ambassador saying there was no chance the embassy would issue any visas to visitors.
``There are no places (to stay),'' Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef told a news conference. ``All houses are full. When the houses will be vacant we will permit you.''
FOREIGNERS PULL OUT
Most foreign aid workers pulled out Thursday, although the International Committee of the Red Cross retains a presence. Diplomats in Kabul to see eight foreign aid workers detained for promoting Christianity have also left.
The United Nations has closed its offices and suspended flights -- drought-ridden and impoverished Afghanistan's only international air links as a result of sanctions imposed over the presence of bin Laden.
While making clear bin Laden was a suspect, Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed the U.S. would also root out those guilty of assaults against U.S. personnel and allies in the past, wherever they may now be.
U.S. officials are seeking cooperation from Pakistan because it is the main backer of the Taliban who are otherwise only recognized by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed over a list of specific steps Washington wanted Pakistan to take. U.S. officials said these included permission to overfly Pakistan with military aircraft and ``military access,'' the closure of its border with Afghanistan and halting fuel supplies to the Taliban.
Pakistan ruler General Pervez Musharraf has pledged cooperation, but it remains to be seen what form this will take.
``All countries must join hands in this common cause,'' he said in a statement and on national television. ``I wish to assure President Bush and the U.S. government of our fullest cooperation in the fight against terrorism.''
The Taliban warned Islamabad of dire consequences should they do so.
``If Pakistan co-operates ... then it should wait for the enmity of Afghans which is more dangerous than any other thing,'' the spokesman said.
The Taliban emerged from religious schools in Pakistan's northwest in 1994, sweeping to power in Kabul two years later.
They have imposed a strictly fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on Afghanistan since taking control of most of the country and have been criticized even by other Muslim nations for their treatment of women and the recent destruction of Afghanistan's ancient non-Islamic cultural heritage.
Some of the Taliban's respected clerics have little education outside religion, can barely read or write and know the Koran only by rote.