On the trail of bin Laden's most likely hideouts

Rapid political and military changes in Afghanistan yield clues to possible location.

Where is Osama bin Laden? Intelligence sources in Pakistan have it that he has fled in recent days with his closest associates to a snowy nook, high up in the jagged peaks of the Pamir Mountains of northern Afghanistan. There, they say, the world's most wanted man has built, with his family's construction know-how, a bunker to outlast all bunkers.

Mr. bin Laden is said to have remodeled a former Soviet military installation into "the ultimate citadel," replete with modern conveniences and high-tech weaponry. The mountain hideaway, the story goes, also provides for a quick escape if needed.

Other sources, more official and possibly better informed, say this is utter bunk.

Truth be told, the unknowns surrounding the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center are only growing by the day, especially along the rugged hills and dusty villages lining the Afghan-Pakistan border. No one - except maybe a chosen few in bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and top Taliban government officials - has many real clues as to the Saudi-born multimillionaire's precise whereabouts.

Still, there are rapid-fire political and military changes going on inside Afghanistan that form an increasingly detailed picture of the most likely hiding spots.

This past week, Taliban officials admitted, after several denials, that they are aware of bin Laden's movements. In recent days, the hard-line Islamic regime has been trying desperately to secure its own support base - racing to cut deals with disaffected tribal leaders in areas under its control. According to Afghan sources with regular contacts inside the country, Taliban officials fear these tribal leaders might side with Western forces.

In a rare English-language statement, Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef yesterday said his government was "ready for negotiations" to prevent possible US-led military action. He repeated, however, that the Taliban would not hand over bin Laden without proof of his involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Several former Afghan mujahideen fighters, who battled Soviet occupation in the 1980s but refused to join the Taliban, which seized power in 1996, say that cracks in the regime's control are making life more difficult for thousands Arabs and other foreign nationals living in Afghanistan. They say that the brewing troubles between Afghans and so-called Afghan Arabs make it highly unlikely that bin Laden has plans to hide out near Pakistan's Northwestern frontier, a former Taliban stronghold.

"Some of Mr. bin Laden's men are taking up positions north of the Khyber Pass along the border, but that is a military tactic to fight any would-be Western invaders in the thick, forested areas there," says Hamid Hamid, a former Afghan mujahideen commander. "Otherwise, the Taliban is loosening its grip on these areas and trying to pacify an angry public fed up with threats from the West."

A far more likely hideout for bin Laden, say other Afghan sources, is in the rugged mountains of Oruzgan province in the center of the country.

Oruzgan is due north of Kandahar, a city used as both a meeting place and a base by bin Laden's Al Qaeda network since he moved to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.

"We have information that both bin Laden and the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, have fled to the Oruzgan," says Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, another a former mujahideen and a supporter of Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Mr. Gailani says he is certain, based on "credible sources and phone calls," that bin Laden was in Kandahar at least three days ago. But, he adds, "Mr. bin Laden is on the move and constantly changing vehicles."

That scenario of a wanted man in full flight suggests that bin Laden may be as concerned about the ratcheting up of talk about Western military action as everyone else inside Afghanistan. Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are expressing confidence that their expanding "war on terror" has already begun to crack the Draconian veneer of Taliban rule.

Some longtime Afghanistan hands say, however, that bin Laden still has a substantial popular support base that he can rely upon.

Shamin Shahid, Peshawar bureau chief of Pakistan's The Nation newspaper, says the Saudi exile is far less likely to take refuge in a remote mountain hideaway than he is to try to fight US forces while surrounded by thousands of backers.

"He is much more vulnerable to attacks by US special forces in the mountains than he would be in a big city where he can count on citizens and soldiers to fight with him," says Mr. Shahid.

Shoiab Sahil, a Pakistani refugee official who monitors activities inside Afghanistan, agrees. "[Bin Laden] is already well dug in there in Kandahar with an existing system of underground bunkers."

From 30 separate interviews with Afghan men who had slipped across the porous Northwestern frontier, it is clear that bin Laden and the Taliban maintain solid support in key areas.

Many of the men said they were bringing their families to safety in Pakistan before returning home to fight off an expected US invasion.

More than two-thirds of the men said they considered bin Laden "a hero." Just seven of the 30 said he was "a villain."

"He is a hero because non-Muslims call him a criminal," says Hzratullah Abid. "His goal is to spread Islam across the world and, in the end, he will succeed."

Jamshid Ali says, "He is a hero because all America fears him."

Even among those who voiced support for bin Laden, however, a handful insisted that it was time for him to consider leaving Afghanistan.

"We hate terrorism, and our country has been utterly destroyed by it," says Marzef Tajiki. "Our people are hungry for peace, and they want Osama to leave."

Millions of Afghans have reportedly fled large cities to hunker down in the hills or mountains.

Several sources in Pakistan said that "only the poorest of the poor" remain in Afghan cities such as Kandahar and the capital, Kabul.

For now, however, bin Laden is seen by many to be far ahead of those trying to catch him.

"The US intelligence services have spent billions of dollars trying to hunt down bin Laden in the last few years," says Gen. Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistan's intelligence services and a direct associate of bin Landen during the 1980s era of intense CIA involvement here against Soviet forces.

"It is a no-win game for the Americans. If you spend your time hunting futilely in the mountains of Afghanistan for bin Laden, they [other terrorists] will strike you again at home."

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