Bin Laden's neighbors wondered about the fortress, but didn't ask questions

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — When a woman involved in a polio vaccine drive turned up at Osama bin Laden's hideaway, she remarked to the men behind the high walls about the expensive SUVs parked inside. The men took the vaccine, apparently to administer to the 23 children at the compound, and told her to go away.

The terror chief and his family kept well hidden behind thick walls in this northwestern hill town they shared with thousands of Pakistani soldiers 30 miles from the capital, Islamabad. Neighbors said they knew little about those inside in the compound but bin Laden apparently depended on two men who would routinely emerge to run errands or to go to a neighborhood gathering, such as a funeral.

There were conflicting details about the men's identities. Several people said they were known as Tariq and Arshad Khan. Neighbors said the pair said they had fled a violent tribal feud in Waziristan to seek a calmer life in Abbottabad. Others gave different names and believed they were brothers. Arshad was the oldest, and both spoke multiple languages, including Pashto and Urdu, which are common here, residents said.

Anjum Qaisar, 27, a grocer who works about 500 feet from the compound, knew them as Rashid and Akbar Khan. He said the men "never came by foot, they always drove a Pajero or a little Suzuki van, and they bought enough food for 10 people."

"I was curious about why they bought so much food, but I did not want to be rude by asking," Qaisar said.

As Qaisar and other neighbors traded stories Tuesday, Pakistani troops controlled access into the neighborhood of new, walled villas interspersed with farm plots where bin Laden's 1.5-acre compound was the biggest. Qaisar was one of few merchants who braved the checkpoints to open for business.

Bin Laden's protectors "always bought the best brands — Nestle milk, the good-quality soaps and shampoos," Qaisar said. "They always paid cash, never asked for credit."

As Navy SEALs swept through the compound early Monday, they handcuffed those they encountered with plastic zip ties and pressed on in pursuit of bin Laden. After killing the terror leader, his son and two others, they doubled back to move nine women and 23 children away from the compound, according to U.S. officials.

Those survivors of the raid are now "in safe hands and being looked after in accordance to the law," the Pakistani government said in a statement. "As per policy, they will be handed over to their countries of origin." It did not elaborate.

Construction of the three-story house in the compound began about seven years ago, locals said. People initially were curious about the heavily fortified compound, but over time they just grew to believe the family inside was deeply religious and conservative.

The Pakistani government pushed back at suggestions that security forces were sheltering bin Laden, calling the raid "an unauthorized unilateral action."

The government also dismissed suggestions that it failed to spot suspicious signs. "It needs to be appreciated that many houses (in the northwest) have high boundary walls, in line with their culture of privacy and security," the government said. "Houses with such layout and structural details are not a rarity."

The house has been described as a mansion, even a luxury one, but from the outside it is nothing special.

Khurshid Bibi, in her 70s, said one man living in the compound had given her a lift to the market in the rain. She said her grandchildren played with the kids in the house and that the adults there gave them rabbits as a gift.

The occupants also attracted criticism.

"People were skeptical . . . about this place and these guys. They used to gossip, say they were smugglers or drug dealers. People would complain that even with such a big house they didn't invite the poor or distribute charity," said Mashood Khan, 45, a farmer.

"They had very powerful security lights at night," said Amin Akbar, the nearest neighbor to the house. "When I saw them on one day last month, I knocked on the gate to tell them so they could turn them off, because our electricity is so expensive."

A Pakistani opened the door "and became very angry with me," he said. "He asked me 'Who told you to come here?' "

Umar Nassir, a teenage student, said neighbors are concerned that bin Laden's refuge in Abbottabad may bring more trouble. "The schools in the city have been closed for three days," he said. "We worry that al-Qaida will come back to attack in our town and take revenge for Osama's death."

Information from Bloomberg News was included in this report.

Bin Laden's neighbors wondered about the fortress, but didn't ask questions 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 12:11am]

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