- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Osama bin Laden has been hidden by many sympathizers in this dusty slum city, a gigantic labyrinth of 3.5 million people, since early December.
A major tribal leader the same chieftain whose scouts in December said they knew "within 1 square kilometer" the whereabouts of the world's most wanted terrorist in the Tora Bora mountain range says that bin Laden crossed over into Pakistan on Dec. 9 as the Pakistani army began deploying a brigade of 4,500 troops along a 30-mile stretch of mountainous border.
Peshawar is the cloak-and-dagger world of plots and counterplots, of arms and narcotics smuggling what Casablanca was to skullduggery in the early days of World War II.
Organized crime in this city is, for the most part, in Afghan hands. The Khyber Pass and Afghan border are 30 minutes away by car. Taliban leaders have kept houses here and in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, since they started their conquest of Afghanistan in 1994. They received their religious training in madrassas (Koranic schools) in the region surrounding Peshawar.
The failure of U.S.-led forces to nab bin Laden, despite a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture, has sparked numerous reports of his whereabouts.
One said he escaped to the mountains of Uzbekistan.
Another said he and his family hid in shipping containers on a vessel leaving Pakistan for an undisclosed location.
In the account of this tribal leader, who has been a reliable source on several occasions, bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora with about 50 of his fighters through the Tirah Valley, long reputed to be the most inaccessible part of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, populated by fiercely independent tribesmen traditionally hostile to the Pakistan government.
Bin Laden is thought to be safe in Peshawar, as he is still a hero to the man in the street, said the tribal leader, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Locating an individual concealed in this city, where pedestrians jostle shoulder-to-shoulder in narrow dirt streets lined with squalid stalls that sell everything from Ecstasy pills to computer chips, is no easy task.
If, as some reports indicate, bin Laden has had plastic surgery to alter his appearance, that would make the task of finding him in Peshawar even more difficult.
Pakistani officers say 100,000 men would have been needed to "hermetically seal" the frontier, as the government announced it had done, and block a bin Laden escape route from the Khyber Pass to Parachinar, a border town in the Kurram tribal agency.
Pakistan deployed up to 12,500 men but then gradually decreased their numbers as the Tora Bora battle subsided and the crisis with India threatened to explode into a military confrontation.
American reporters were warned in early December by this same tribal leader to stay out of the Tirah Valley, "as you are certain to be kidnapped for ransom."
A Pakistani battalion negotiated its way into Tirah two days after bin Laden and his cohort had made it safely out of the valley. There they split into smaller groups.
Pakistani roadblocks were not set up until Dec. 17, after word got out that al Qaeda fighters were escaping from Tora Bora into Pakistan by the hundreds. Eventually about 1,000 "Afghan Arabs" and Pakistani jihadis, or holy warriors, fled Afghanistan. Pakistani army patrols and police arrested between 400 and 600 of them.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, insisted last week that the United States never told him that bin Laden was in Pakistan after fleeing from Afghanistan.
The tribal leader said he was "reasonably confident" that bin Laden enjoyed the protection of "certain rogue elements of Pakistan's intelligence world that have taken exception to Musharraf's alliance with America."
It was Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency that nurtured the Taliban movement as it began to grow in Pakistan in the early 1990s, and that sustained it after it became the government of Afghanistan in 1996. The ISI also maintained links to bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization.
Taliban and al Qaeda fighters now in Pakistan are said to have been instructed to re-enter Afghanistan "to kill Americans and other foreign troops."
Leaflets recently began appearing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, praising Palestinian suicide bombers and saying, "We need to display similar courage today." Villagers are urged to collect information on all foreigners operating in their areas, and are warned that anyone assisting Americans will be killed "like mad dogs."
The day after ex-King Mohammed Zahir Shah returned to Kabul, Afghanistan, from his Italian exile last week, former Afghan President Burhannudin Rabbani warned that efforts to sideline the Taliban's mujahideen could only lead "to another crisis."
Diplomatic sources say that more than 60 al Qaeda operatives were arrested two weeks ago in Faisalabad, Pakistan, along with Abu Zubayda, the organization's third-highest-ranking member.
Pakistani federal police agents, accompanied by FBI agents from the United States, were said to be acting on an overheard telephone conversation between Zubayda and bin Laden.
Towns and villages in Pakistan's tribal belt still display bin Laden posters and pro-al Qaeda and Taliban slogans, daubed on rocks and adobe dwellings.
U.S. forces want permission to pursue al Qaeda forces in this area, but Gen. Musharraf has made it clear he cannot approve such action without jeopardizing an April 30 referendum on his request for five more years as president. It would also provide ammunition to his opponents in October's national elections.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times, as well as an editor at large of United Press International. His account also appears on the UPI wire.

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