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    Breaking news...British PM Blair to fly to Pakistan! 62123&in_review_text_id=414435

    Blair heads for Pakistan

    In last-minute diplomatic moves before US strikes, Tony Blair was set to fly to Pakistan to make an appeal through General Musharraf to the Taliban to surrender Osama bin Laden.

    At the same time, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has left for the Middle East on a hastily organised three-day trip intended to "seal the deal" of an anti-terrorist alliance and nail down the co-operation needed to enable American forces to stage their long expected attack on terrorist redoubts in Afghanistan.

    The Prime Minister, who will visit Moscow en route, will be accompanied by Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, who has been in regular contact with Pakistan's leader since the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

    Pakistan is now the only country which recognises the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Last week General Musharraf said he still had seen no proof that Bin Laden was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

    Tony Blair is expected to furnish him with the evidence garnered by US intelligence agencies, which he and his Nato allies believe show a direct link between Bin Laden and the attacks.

    Last weekend General Musharraf showed his exasperation with the Taliban authorities when they said they had got Bin Laden after saying previously they did not know where he is. The Pakistani leader told the Taliban to give up the Saudi renegade, or face the near certainty of attacks by America and its allies.

    The same message will be delivered by Mr Blair. If the Taliban do not comply, attacks by American and British aircraft and cruise missiles could start next week.

    A message from the Taliban last night asking for talks with the Americans offered a small glimmer of hope for negotiations but diplomats have been treating the overture from Kabul with caution and scepticism.

    During his visit the Prime Minister is also likely to offer the Pakistanis help with the huge refugee crisis, which now threatens to get out of control.

    Mr Rumsfeld's tour, which includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and Uzbekistan, is being compared to the stage-setting trip made by Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defence, to the Persian Gulf just before the start of Desert Storm.

    Near the top of his list of priorities is to talk his way to an agreement with Uzbekistan, on the northern border of Afghanistan, to use the country as a staging area for the attack.

    Uzbekistan is now regarded as a potential key asset in the comimg showdown, but is rated the coalition's single most fragile link. Highly attractive to the US are the abandoned air bases, once used by the Soviet Union. This will be Mr Rumsfeld's first faceto-face meeting with the regime there. Tony Blair is also expected to make a stopover in Oman and meet thousands of British service men and women now on a major exercise there. Oman is regarded by the US as an important support base for a ground incursion into Afghanistan.

    One notable omission on Mr Rumsfeld's itinerary is Pakistan. "The last thing Pakistan needs is a high profile visit by a US Secretary of Defence, said a Pentagon official. The country is contending with ferocious anti-American demonstrations, with Mr Bush burned in effigy and hordes shouting: "Death to America! Let Americans come here to be buried!"

    As the military build up continued the Pentagon announced that 2,263 National Guard and Reserve troops had been called to active duty, bringing the total reserves mobilised to more than 22,400. About 30,000 American servicemen are in the region, including two aircraft carrier battle groups and 350 planes. Two additional aircraft carriers are under way.

    [This message has been edited by Malik73 (edited October 03, 2001).]

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