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Bin Laden fled to Iran, cook says

An Al Qaeda chef, captured and tortured by Afghans, begged yesterday to be handed over to US officials.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 2002



GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN

A self-described chef for Osama bin Laden, who has been captured by tribesmen here, says that his boss - after leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan - has since traveled into Iran.

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In three separate interviews here in Ghazni, Haji Mohamad Akram, a waif of a man suffering from the results of regular torture sessions by his captors, provided detailed accounts of the battle at Tora Bora, of Mr. bin Laden's movements in November and December last year - and of his favorite dishes.

It is not possible to independently corroborate the Saudi chef's story, nor to know his motives for speaking. He may prefer American prisons to those of his captors here. But the detailed picture he offers of bin Laden's last days in Tora Bora, and his possible escape to Iran, correspond with accounts from previous Monitor interviews with other bin Laden associates. It also fits recent US concerns that Iran is harboring Al Qaeda refugees.

"There isn't any doubt in my mind but that the porous border between Iran and Afghanistan has been used for Al Qaeda and Taliban to move into Iran," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told "ABC This Week" on Sunday. "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of Al Qaeda."

To be sure, the haggard-looking Saudi chef wants relief from his Afghan captors.

For the interviews, Hazara leader Ali Akbar Qasmi escorted Mr. Akram out of a back room of his house into his small, dark living room. Sitting in shackles near a pot-belly stove, his bloodied nostrils plugged with cotton, he begged to be handed over to US investigators - even sent "to Cuba" if necessary - and promised to disclose important information to US officials.

In fact, Mr. Qasmi had placed a call to the US Embassy in Kabul earlier this week. He says a US official there told him that they were terribly busy and it would help if he could hold them a "week or two."

But yesterday, he placed a satellite phone call to a secret US intelligence base in Afghanistan. Qasmi says the US officials expressed great interest in taking the Saudi chef, along with another Saudi financier and a Kurdish member of Al Qaeda into custody. "Keep them right there," Qasmi says the US official told him. "We'll give you far more than anyone else is offering you for these people." (The last time Qasmi helped US officials capture two senior Taliban officials, he received two new trucks.)

The other two captives have refused to divulge information about Al Qaeda, have repeatedly threatened suicide, and have attacked their captors on two occasions, Qasmi says.

But the Saudi chef says he was betrayed by his associates and now says he is willing to provide investigators with leads as to the whereabouts of top Al Qaeda leaders.

Wrapped in a bare thin blanket and shaking from the cold, Akram recounted his stay inside Tora Bora at the height of US bombing.

He says he has spent the past 13 years in Afghanistan, and that in addition to being a teacher of the Koran in a training school and performing usual security duties, he was one of bin Laden's favorite chefs.

"Osama's favorite meal is fowl - anything with wings," says the Saudi national. "He likes quails, and if he can't get his hands on one, he will settle for a chicken. Most of the quails he ate, we hunted. Others were brought in by road from Iran. Osama often made special requests for the mutton and yogurt Mogul dish that I do best."

He goes on to say that bin Laden is a very stern man. "When Osama says yes, no one around him says no," Akram says. "He is very loyal to his closest friends. He had some very good Pakistani friends, including those working in the field of atomic energy."

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