Monday, May 2, 2011

Residents of upscale suburb incredulous wanted terrorist was in their midst

No one in the affluent Bilal Town suburb where Osama bin Laden seemed to suspect his presence here. Nor did they see the possibility that a wanted terrorist, let alone the most hunted man in the world, could live so close to one of its famed military institutions.

A suburb with large, sometimes garish houses, Bilal Town is one of the most upscale neighbourhoods of Abbottabad, a vacation spot set in the Himalayan foothills and a two-hour drive from the capital, Islamabad, Unlike most north-west cities, the population of Abbottabad, which was founded by a British colonial administrator in 1853, are ethnic Hazaras, not Pashtuns.

Osama bin Laden’s last stand was in a large house less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, where the country’s top brass trains, including former president Pervez Musharraf.

On the streets of Abbottabad, there was no visible reaction to events. Shops remained open. Residents went about their usual business. Fareed Alam, a 39-year-old employee of a non-governmental organization, said that if people believed that bin Laden was really dead, “You’d see the fire on the streets.”

Though Bin Laden’s white, roomy three-storey house has an unusually high boundary wall, outside its fences it did not stand out in a neighbourhood of oversized houses built to accommodate extended families that tend to live together in Pakistan.

But there was a little mystery. Neighbours said that two men, ethnic Pashtuns, would emerge from the house but did not mingle with locals. Some suggested that they were brothers and had lived there for five years or more. But they were many other Pashtuns in Abbottabad, so they wouldn’t have stood out.

Nor would they guess the duo could be connected to Mr. bin Laden. “This is such a sensitive place, with the military academy just across the road. Also the (intelligence) agencies are all over here,” said Azhar Khan, 32, who works for a non-governmental organization.

Mr. Khan said that he believed that bin Laden was “created by America” and he was probably actually killed long ago.

Other residents were angry that a burial at sea – bin Laden’s body was reportedly dumped in the ocean – was not in accordance with an Islamic burial; others demanded proof that the dead man was the al-Qaeda leader.

The bin Laden house did not look damaged from the outside. A cloth screen had been put up on one side of the compound Monday morning by the military, obscuring the view where the helicopter was said to be destroyed.

Pakistani soldiers and police stood guard around the area and stopped anyone from approaching the house.


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