Europe rejects bin Laden offer
LONDON -- Key European nations, including Iraq war opponents Germany and France, vigorously rejected a truce offer purportedly from Osama bin Laden on Thursday, saying there could be no negotiating with his al-Qaida terrorist network.
Many saw the audiotaped offer as a blatant attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, exploiting their differences over Iraq. The offer suggested a subtle shift in strategy by the al-Qaida chief, who in the past has directed his bloody campaign against the West in general.
One analyst said the shift was unsurprising, however, given bin Laden's "opportunism." Another observer said the three-month truce offer might contain a message to militants to hold back on attacks against Europe.
The tape, which the CIA said is likely an authentic recording of bin Laden, was broadcast on Arab TV stations offering "a truce ... to any country which does not carry out an onslaught against Muslims or interfere in their affairs."
In Italy, a nation shocked by the killing of an Italian civilian captured by militants in Iraq, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said it was "unthinkable that we may open a negotiation with bin Laden, everybody understands this."
French President Jacques Chirac, one of the firmest opponents of the war that ousted Saddam Hussein, was equally clear: "No dealings are possible with terrorists."
Germany, which is now helping train Iraqi police, also strongly rejected the truce offer. "Any attempt to split Europe will fail," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was pleased by the reaction, and that Europeans are saying they "will not be terrorized by these terrorists."
"I think that the international community realizes that they cannot give in to these kinds of threats," he told reporters in Washington. "I hope this will strengthen our determination to deal with terrorism and especially to do everything we can to bring Osama bin Laden to justice."
The tape -- broadcast on the pan-Arab television stations Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya -- is the first since January attributed to bin Laden, believed to be hiding in mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The CIA said the seven-minute recording was probably made recently because of its reference to Israel's killing March 22 of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
"I am offering a truce to European countries," the speaker on the tape said. "Its core is our commitment to cease operations against any country which does not carry out an onslaught against Muslims or interfere in their affairs."
The message said "the door to a truce is open for three months," but the period could be extended. "The truce will begin when the last soldier leaves our countries," the speaker said without elaborating.
Charles Heyman, an analyst at Jane's Defense Weekly, said the tape was "a not very subtle attempt to break whatever coalition there is and to destabilize the situation in Iraq."
A counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the truce offer marked a different approach by al-Qaida, because it distinguishes between Western nations.
"For the most part he has tended to lump all of the West in the same category, saying in effect, 'You're all evil,"' the official said. "This is a departure in that it's more of an attempt to cause division."
Analyst Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corporation, said the new tactic was "not entirely surprising given his record of opportunism." He noted that last year bin Laden threatened a number of European nations cooperating with the United States in the fight against terrorism, to no effect.
"Like any good psychological warfare officer he's changing his message subtly and altering his tactics slightly but trying to achieve the same effect" of widening the gap between the United States and its European allies.
The speaker on the tape appealed to European public opinion, saying the truce offer was "a reconciliation initiative in response to the recent positive developments that have appeared" -- an apparent reference to the defeat of Spain's pro-Iraq war government after March 11 bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid.
Yet Spain's incoming Socialist government -- which promised to pull all 1,300 Spanish troops out of Iraq -- also denounced the message.
"What we want is peace, democracy and freedom," said incoming Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Analysts said the tape was an attempt to encourage Europeans to press their governments to stop supporting U.S. military operations in Muslim nations.
It also could be a message to al-Qaida sympathizers to stop European operations that might have the result of galvanizing support for President Bush's war on terror, said Montasser el-Zayat, an Egyptian lawyer who defends Islamic radicals.
"Bin Laden is seeing how those bombings (in Madrid) were used by the Americans to pressure Europe into more action," he said. "This tape is a message to those groups to cease these actions."
The tape moderated bin Laden's usual rhetoric, avoiding references to Europeans as "the Crusader-Jewish alliance" and referring instead to "our neighbors north of the Mediterranean."
The speaker described the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the Madrid bombings as revenge strikes, although he did not directly claim al-Qaida was responsible.
The voice on the tape said that "what happened on Sept. 11 and March 11 was your goods delivered back to you."
A truce, the message said, would deny "the warmongers" further opportunities. Polls have shown that "most of the European peoples want reconciliation" with the Islamic world, it said.
Britain, which supported the war and has 8,700 troops in Iraq, rejected the notion it would remove its soldiers in return for immunity from attack.
"One has to treat such claims, such proposals, by al-Qaida with the contempt they deserve," said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, adding: "I'm afraid that it is yet another barefaced attempt to divide the international community."