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PESHAWAR: On Osama’s trail in Peshawar

December 31, 2001

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PESHAWAR, Dec 30: He’s here but he isn’t. He used to live here or maybe he didn’t — ever since Afghan Defence Minister Gen Mohammad Fahim said Osama bin Laden was probably in Peshawar, everybody has a view.

The city was a major centre for freedom fighters seeking to drive Soviet invaders from Afghanistan in the 1980s and its links with its war-torn neighbour remain close.

But is Osama there? The world’s most wanted man has been “spotted” all over Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent weeks.

The United States has no idea whether he is still alive, let alone where he is.

Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar told Reuters on Friday that he could not rule out the possibility that he was in Pakistan. But Gen Fahim went closest to identifying his hiding place, saying there was a “strong possibility” he was in Peshawar.

“He was actually living here for a short while in the early 1980s,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior journalist, said here on Saturday.

Mr Yusufzai, who met Osama twice in Afghanistan in 1998, said he had come to Peshawar at the request of Abdullah Azam, a Palestinian Jordanian, at the height of anti-Soviet feeling among Muslims.

“Azam prevailed on him to come and use his money and resources to arrange for more people to come and receive training to go to Afghanistan,” he said.

Following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Islamic movements — with US support — made large sums available to train and equip radicals fighting the Soviet presence.

With a fortune at his disposal, Osama set up a group called Al Khidmat here, he said.

This paid for air tickets and accommodation, dealt with paperwork with Pakistani authorities and provided other such services for fighters on their way to Afghanistan.

To keep Al Khidmat running, Osama set up a network of couriers travelling between Afghanistan and Peshawar, he said and added that it was still active.

He cited a recent videotape, apparently shot in December and sent to a Qatari television station and aired last week, as evidence that the courier network was still functioning.

“How else can he operate? It’s so difficult. There’s a lot of sympathy for him here, you know,” he says, adding: “Definitely he must have travelled in and out of Peshawar a few times.”

Osama lived at several addresses in and around Arbab Road in the University Town neighbourhood, he said.

The street has a mainly Afghan refugee population now. A street off Arbab Road is named after another one-time resident, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

“I never heard that Osama lived in this area,” says 68-year-old Abdul Shakoor, an Arbab Road resident for 30 years. But, as one local points out: “Everyone here is afraid to speak of him.”

Another said that even if Osama had lived there, it was impossible that he could be in Peshawar now.

“If he was, we’d have handed him over to the authorities,” he said and added that the residents feared that the US might bomb Peshawar in their hunt for Osama as they had bombed Afghanistan.

Not far away on Gulshan-i-Iqbal Road is a mosque where, locals say, Arabs in Peshawar in the early 1980s used to worship.

Abdul Gofran, an old man outside the mosque, said that Abdullah Azam used the mosque as a centre “to prepare fighters for jihad against Russian forces.”

Mr Azam was later killed by a car bomb outside the mosque, after which, Mr Gofran said, “Arabs were advised not to assemble in one place for prayers but to mix with Pakistanis in other mosques.”

Sardar Agha, who called himself a servant of the mosque for 13 years, was reticent about whether he had seen Osama there.

“At that time all these Arabs came to the mosque,” he said. “I don’t remember if Osama was here or not.” One who remembers him well is Haji Dost Mohammad, an Afghan living here for 22 years, who runs security at the Jalozai refugee camp.

“He may have lived in Peshawar, but I never had close contacts with him,” he said. “Once he came to the camp, 14 years ago, to deliver dates. He came only once. I haven’t seen him since, and at the time I didn’t know who he was.”

Nobody here will admit to knowing where Osama is now, despite Gen Fahim’s claim. But equally, nobody seems to doubt that he has had plenty of contact with the city.—Reuters