Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Prince Sultan said in remarks published on Sunday that the kingdom, a key U.S. ally, will not allow foreign forces to launch attacks from its territory against Arabs or Muslims.
The Arabic-language Okaz newspaper said Prince Sultan dismissed as "nonsense" reports that the oil-rich kingdom would allow U.S. forces to launch military action from a U.S. base on its territory against Afghanistan.
"We do not accept the presence in our country of a single soldier at war with Muslims or Arabs," it quoted the minister as saying during a visit to the northern Qassim region.
Prince Sultan's reported remarks were the first made by a senior Saudi official following conflicting recent reports on whether the kingdom would allow the United States to use its territory to launch attacks in reprisal for the September 11 suicide attacks in New York and Washington.
But Sultan's comments may have been for domestic consumption.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity Friday, said they have received tacit assurances that Saudi Arabia will allow U.S. troops to use a command center at a base in Saudi Arabia as a staging ground for military action against exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who is thought to be harbored by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The two sides might be able to find a compromise through which U.S. forces direct attacks on Afghanistan from a command center in Saudi Arabia, but use forces launched from other locations.
The United States has warned Afghanistan's ruling Taliban of reprisals for not handing over Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden, Washington's top suspect in the attacks.
The U.S. military presence in the kingdom is sensitive to Muslims - it is one of the reasons bin Laden has declared war on the United States. Saudi officials have in the past dealt with the problem by simply denying there is a U.S. military presence in their nation.
Prince Sultan said the situation was now different from 1990-1991 when Saudi Arabia was a launching pad for the U.S.-led military coalition that ended Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.
Okaz quoted Prince Sultan as saying that 40 French, British and U.S. aircraft were in the kingdom to monitor southern Iraq under a U.N. Security Council decision following the Gulf War.
About 4,500 U.S. soldiers and an undisclosed number of U.S. warplanes involved in the patrols are based at the Prince Sultan Air Base in al-Kharj, a vast compound in a remote stretch of desert south of Riyadh, the capital.
The Washington Post has said Riyadh signaled it would allow U.S. aircraft stationed at Prince Sultan Air Base to launch attacks on Afghanistan. The Post had previously said the Saudis were resisting a U.S. request to use a new command center there.
The Saudi ambassador to Britain Ghazi al-Gosaibi told Reuters on Wednesday that Washington was aware the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, could not be directly involved in strikes on felow Muslims in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia has pledged support for an international coalition U.S. President George W. Bush is building against "terrorism." It has also severed ties with the Taliban for refusing to hand over bin Laden.
The Saudi English-language Arab News daily said in an editorial on Sunday that the Washington Post and foreign news agencies "are either unaware of the kingdom's policies or attitudes or they are aiming to embarrass the kingdom by malicious propaganda that suggests the kingdom is part of military action."
"The kingdom's participation in combating terrorism is and will be consistent and compatible with its beliefs, policies and best judgments. Only Saudi air space will be used as our contribution. but the kingdom's soil will not be used as a base for any military operations," the newspaper said.
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