- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s leader denied suggestions that his country’s security forces sheltered Osama bin Laden as Britain demanded Tuesday that Islamabad answer for how the al Qaeda chief lived undetected for six years in a large house in a garrison town close to the capital.

But in a nod to the complexities of dealing with a nuclear-armed, unstable country that is crucial to success in the war in neighboring Afghanistan, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that having “a massive row” with Islamabad over the issue would not be in Britain’s interest.

A day after U.S. commandos killed bin Laden, reporters were allowed within the 15-foot, barbed-wire-topped walls of the compound for the first time. But the doors of the house were sealed shut, and police were in no mood to open them.

Local residents showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that Washington said malfunctioned and was disabled by the American strike team as they retreated. A small servant’s room outside the perimeter showed signs of violent entry and had been briskly searched, clothes and bedding tossed to the ground. Its wall clock was on the floor, the time stuck at 2:20 a.m., when the U.S. team would have been on the ground in the early hours of Monday.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s comments, in an opinion article in The Washington Post on Tuesday, were Pakistan’s first formal response to suspicions raised by U.S. officials and others. Those suspicions could further sour relations between Islamabad and its Western backers at a key point in the war in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden was killed close to a military academy in the bustling northwestern town of Abbottabad, not in the remote Afghan border region where intelligence assessments had assumed he had been holed up. That was quickly taken as a sign of possible collusion with the country’s powerful security establishment, which Western officials long have regarded with a measure of suspicion despite several notable al Qaeda arrests in the country since 2001.

“Some in the U.S. press have suggested that Pakistan lacked vitality in its pursuit of terrorism, or worse yet that we were disingenuous and actually protected the terrorists we claimed to be pursuing. Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact,” Mr. Zardari wrote.

Ties between the two nominal allies already were strained amid U.S. accusations that the Pakistanis are supporting militants in Afghanistan and Pakistani anger over American drone attacks and spy activity on its soil. They came to head in late January after a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis in what Washington said was self-defense.

Senior U.S. officials did not directly accuse Pakistan of collusion but made it clear they had concerns.

“People have been referring to this as hiding in plain sight,” Obama’s counterterrorism chief John Brennan told reporters Monday. “Clearly, this was something that was considered as a possibility. Pakistan is a large country. We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there.”

Lawmakers were more direct.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Pakistan’s intelligence and army have “got a lot of explaining to do,” given that bin Laden was holed up in such a large house with surrounding buildings, the fact that its residents took the unusual step of burning their garbage and avoiding any trash collection.

“It’s hard to imagine that the military or police did not have any ideas what was going on inside of that,” Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Cameron, who has also made supporting Pakistan a major foreign policy commitment, echoed those concerns.

“Those are questions we have to ask, those are questions we will want answered, and we will be asking that question of everyone in Pakistan and the Pakistani government,” Mr. Cameron told BBC radio before acknowledging the West’s limited leverage against Islamabad.

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