By RON FOURNIER, AP White House Correspondent
NEW YORK (AP) - President Bush said Saturday that northern alliance forces battling the Taliban in Afghanistan should steer clear of the capital city of Kabul, part of an effort to assure that power is eventually shared among the various tribes of the country.
``We will encourage our friends to head south ... but not into the city of Kabul itself,'' Bush said at a news conference one day after northern alliance forces claimed the strategic city of Mazar-e-sharif about 200 miles from the Afghan capital.
Bush made his comments in a session with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who swiftly agreed that the northern alliance must not move into Kabul. The Pakistani leader said if they do, ``we'll see the same kind of atrocities being perpetuated against the people there'' as after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
The announcement marked a new twist in U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, and underscored how the nation's long history of infighting and tribal animosities are complicating the American effort. Northern alliance fighters relied heavily on American bombing and other assistance in the successful push against Mazar-e-Sharif, and presumably would need assistance to move successfully against the capital.
Bush said he didn't know whether Osama bin Laden has nuclear weapons, as the terrorist mastermind claimed in a recent interview with a Pakistani journalist. ``The only thing I know for certain about him is he's evil'' and that is ``all the more reason to pursue him diligently,'' the president said.
Bush lavished praise on Musharraf after a private meeting, and opened the news conference with an announcement he was supporting $1 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan, as well as debt relief.
``In our hour of need just after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, President Musharraf quickly condemned the evil-doers,'' Bush said. ``He has shown even greater courage in the weeks since.'' He added that Musharraf is ``committed to restore democracy in Pakistan.''
For his part, Musharraf said the two men had discussed ``Pakistan's difficulties from the fallout of whatever is happening in our region,'' an apparent reference to the anti-American sentiment evident among Taliban supporters, particularly along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The words of support and pledge of funds were fresh indication of the favor that Musharraf - shunned two years ago by President Clinton (news - web sites) - has gained since leading his country firmly into the coalition against terrorism being waged in next-door Afghanistan.
Bush was asked about the status of Kabul one day after Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) said the capital should be an ``open city'' in the post-Taliban era.
He said he and Musharraf share the view that ``any power arrangement must be shared with the different tribes within Afghanistan, and a key signal of that will be how the city of Kabul is treated.''
Afghanistan is comprised of numerous ethnic tribes, all of them maneuvering for position in the post-Taliban era they are battling to bring about. Northern alliance groups include Uzbeks, Tajiks and others, while the Pashtun are predominant in the southern part of the country.
Bush passed up an opportunity to comment on Musharraf's assertion that atrocities might follow if the northern alliance forces moved into Kabul, which is largely Pashtun.
Bush also said the two leaders had discussed Kashmir (news - web sites), a disputed border region claimed by both Pakistan and India, and that the United States ``will do what we can to bring parties together.''
Bush stressed that the United States can still accomplish its war aims if the northern alliance does not enter Kabul.
The two presidents met in conjunction with a United Nations (news - web sites) General Assembly session, delayed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush addressed the world body earlier in the day, warning all nations they are possible targets of terrorism and urging them to join in the worldwide battle to prevent more attacks.
Heading into the session with Bush, Musharraf had sought military and economic assistance from the United States - and also made clear he opposes any move by the northern alliance opposition forces to enter Kabul.
In addition, he has warned that scenes of civilian suffering - the result of wayward American bombs - beamed by satellite television throughout the world are hurting the coalition's cause.
Among the concessions sought by Musharraf was the release of 28 American F-16 fighters sold to Pakistan in the 1980s, when it was an ally against the Soviet Union. The planes were withheld by Congress because the Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. Bush did not address the issue at the news conference, but aides said he did not intend to release the planes.
Prior to the meeting, Bush had waived the last remaining sanctions put in place against Pakistan in the 1990s, including some imposed after Musharraf took power in a 1999 military coup.
Administration officials said in advance the administration planned to announce additional aid in the range of $300 million to $500 million. Bush earlier had committed $100 million in economic assistance. The United States and Pakistan also recently rescheduled $379 million of Pakistan's debt of about $3 billion to the United States.