Afghanistan residents fear U.S. retaliation

Saturday, September 15, 2001

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Agha Gul, a businessman familiar with this part of eastern Afghanistan, pointed to an arid outcropping over a thick stand of trees. "The Arabs are over there, hundreds of them," he said. "That's one of Osama's big camps."

The Arabs are the fighters who serve Osama bin Laden, the man U.S. officials say is the likeliest suspect behind Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The village Gul was pointing to was Darunta, five miles west of the ancient city of Jalalabad astride the Khyber Pass, and one of several potential targets for U.S. retaliation.

Anxious not to draw any fire, Afghans living in and around Jalalabad are quick to insist that the Arabs, who until a few days ago roamed freely through the marketplace, have hardly been seen since Tuesday.

Closed Arab camps

The Arabs originally came to Afghanistan to aid the fight against Soviet invasion in the 1980s, and stayed on to back the Taliban militia in civil war and Islamic revolution. Their camps today are off-limits to foreigners, so it's difficult to verify their size and capabilities.

But their presence is considered an important prop for the Taliban in its war against rebels who still control about 5 percent of the mountainous country.

After 20 years of fighting, the country is in ruins and Afghans are fatalistic about the threat of U.S. attack.

"Everyone is frightened. We know the Arabs are our neighbors, but what can we do?" said Asim Jan, a cobbler.

Another possible target for attack is a farm 12 miles south of Jalalabad owned by former insurgent leader Maulvi Younus Khalis, where hundreds of Arabs are bivouacked. Four eastern provinces are believed to have bin Laden bases, in fact a senior Taliban official, speaking on condition of anonymity, has told reporters that there are training camps in every province.

Then there is Jalalabad's airport. Last year its manager related that a close bin Laden aide who identified himself as "Mr. Mauritania" had come through the airport carrying two gym bags loaded with Saudi currency, and six pistols which he said were for his own use. The manager, who gave his name as Abdullah, said "Mr. Mauritania" carried a card from the Taliban authorities ordering airport officials to let him pass through unhindered.

Seventy-five miles west of Jalalabad lies the capital, Kabul, and its Taliban garrisons which could also be targets of retaliation.

Taliban rejects threat

The Taliban insist bin Laden hasn't the wherewithal to have executed Tuesday's horror. They say they aren't preparing for a U.S. attack because they have done nothing to deserve one.

But late Friday they made a surprise administrative shuffle, replacing the governors of Afghanistan's border provinces with new men from their inner circle. No reason was given.

Kabul has also seen an Arab exodus. According to Gulzar, a cab driver, most of the Arabs have headed to Misan-e-Logar, about 60 miles outside Kabul, where an estimated 400 houses of Arab nationals, apparently affiliated with bin Laden, are located.

"I know because I have driven them there before. But now it's not safe," he said. Two Arabs offered him $30 to take them to Misan-e-Logar, he said, "but I refused. It's too dangerous."

Gulzar, who uses only one name, said most Afghans want Bin Laden and his followers to leave

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