Bin Laden's 'neighbors' profess ignorance of his presence

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — To hear the residents of Abbottabad tell it, the first hint they had that Osama bin Laden had lived among them for perhaps the last six years came at 12:45 a.m. Monday, when they heard the sound of low-flying helicopters, followed by three explosions and gunfire that lasted about 30 minutes.

Then a fourth explosion shook the Bilal Town neighborhood, where bin Laden had lived, followed by a fire.

"The helicopters were flying just 20 feet above the roofs of houses," recalled Omar Nazeer, a 30-year-old government worker who lives about three minutes on foot from the bin Laden house. "We got very concerned. There were three or four explosions; the last one was huge. All our windows shook."

In the morning, Nazeer saw a Pakistani military truck haul away the remains of a helicopter, one that U.S. officials in Washington said American forces had destroyed after it became disabled during the raid. The explosives that reduced it to rubble probably were the final blast that was heard.

Abbottabad residents said they were stunned.

The house, surrounded by a wall, like many others here, is less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul, the country's equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Abbottabad is a garrison town, with numerous other military installations and bases, as well as a spy network to protect them.

But nothing had alerted the residents to bin Laden's presence, they said, certainly not the two men who lived there, ethnic Pashtuns who kept to themselves in an area inhabited largely by ethnic Hazaras. The men emerged only to go to the mosque. Some locals thought they came from northwest Pakistan; others suggested Afghanistan. Pashtuns, the warriorlike ethnic group that makes up most of the Taliban, live on both sides of the border.

Had residents known bin Laden was a neighbor, however, it's not clear what they would have done.

"He is the real Muslim, the real hero for all Muslims," Amjad Ali, a 19-year-old student who lives in Bilal Town, said of bin Laden. "Osama is not the terrorist. America is."

Another resident, Fareed Alam, 39, said that if people here really believed that bin Laden was dead, "you'd see the fire on the streets." If he encountered an American, Alam said, he would "kill him."

He expressed disbelief that bin Laden's body had been buried at sea, as U.S. officials said.

"This is just a game. We don't know what will follow next. If they've been searching for someone for 10 years, they wouldn't just dump him in the sea an hour after getting him. They would take the body to Washington, D.C., and maybe burn it there for all to see," Alam said.

A British colonial administrator founded Abbottabad in 1853. A two-hour drive northeast from the capital of Islamabad, Abbottabad is known not for suffering from terrorism but for its military institutions and well-regarded schools and colleges. It serves as a stop-over for those heading into the mountains. Bilal Town is one of its most upscale neighborhoods, an area with large, sometimes garish houses and open fields.

Azhar Khan, a 32-year-old local, said Abbottabad didn't have an extremist presence. He expressed disbelief that bin Laden had lived here.

"This is such a sensitive place, with the military academy just across the road. Also the (intelligence) agencies are all over here," said Khan, who works for a nongovernmental organization. "It is not possible that Osama could live here for five or six years. This is one of the most peaceful places in Pakistan."

He said he believed that bin Laden was "created by America" and that he'd been killed long ago.

It was impossible Monday to determine how bin Laden had spent his final days. No one here acknowledged ever having seen him.

Locals said the Pakistani military sealed off the area immediately after the raid, and it was impossible to approach the house Monday.

From a distance, the house didn't look damaged. The military had erected a cloth screen on one side of the compound, said to be where the helicopter was destroyed, to obscure the view.

Pakistani soldiers and police officers stood guard all around the area and stopped anyone who tried to get close.

Video shot inside the house, apparently by a mobile phone, showed a bare interior, with blood splattered on the floor.

According to U.S. officials, the American raiders killed three others in addition to bin Laden: one of the Pashtun men who lived there, a bin Laden son and a woman whom one of the dead men may have used as a shield.

Two women were wounded in the raid, Pakistani officials said. One official said they were one of bin Laden's wives and his daughter. They were treated at a military hospital in Abbottabad, the officials said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the news media.

For years, speculation had suggested that bin Laden would be hiding in the largely Taliban-controlled tribal area of Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan. Instead, he turned out to be living in the heart of Pakistan and in the bosom of its security state, as had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was caught in 2003 in Rawalpindi, the town that houses Pakistan's military headquarters.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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