KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- The CIA Hellfire missile attack in eastern Afghanistan that killed three men believed to be senior al Qaida leaders came as Afghan forces planned to raid a nearby village where Osama bin Laden was thought to be holed up, United Press International has learned.
Controversy still surrounds the Feb. 3 missile attack, launched remotely by the CIA from an unmanned Predator aircraft. Locals have told journalists that the three men were residents collecting scrap metal. The U.S. military is investigating, but says it is "in a comfort zone" about the strike, and does not believe the men were innocent.
Buttressing the U.S. case, two Afghan security sources tell UPI that in the days leading up to the missile strike, they were monitoring a group of al Qaida leaders -- believed to include bin Laden himself -- and their heavily armed bodyguards holed up in a nearby village.
The sources are an American security adviser to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance -- part of the U.N.-backed interim government of the country -- and a local informant of his. Both asked not to be named and their stories could not be independently verified.
At the time of the missile strike, the adviser was assembling a force of Afghan fighters to raid the village of Kote Tangai -- where the al Qaida group had been in hiding since last December.
The adviser and his informant -- who had been monitoring a string of villages along the border with Pakistan -- believe the group was the same one targeted by the Hellfire, and was in the act of fleeing across the border to Pakistan when the missile struck.
Locals who reported bin Laden's suspected whereabouts did not inform the U.S. military at the time because they feared airstrikes against their villages, the adviser says.
Two powerful local warlords who are helping to hide al Qaida were also exerting pressure on locals not to reveal the presence of the terrorists they were protecting, he added.
Since the missile attack, U.S. Special Forces have occupied Kote Tangai and surrounding villages in southern Nangahar province where the al Qaida group had been moving secretly for over a month.
"The Americans have come in with helicopters, Humvees and motorcycles, passing around money to obtain information from villagers," said the informant, adding that they were too late, and that the fugitives have already fled to other hiding places in the surrounding Spin Gar Mountains or across into Pakistan.
The informant, a native of the area who had been an intelligence official in a pre-Taliban government, spoke under condition of anonymity, using the pseudonym Daoud. He told UPI about the possible presence of bin Laden in the area a day before the Hellfire attack.
A U.S. military team has been combing the area where the missile struck, Pentagon officials said this week.
"I can report that the team has recovered some documents, some clothing, two missile fins, an empty box used for a hand-held radio, some AK-47 ammo pouches and some 300 rounds of 50-caliber ammo, and, yes, some human remains," Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters, adding, "There are no initial indications that these were innocent locals... So I think that that sort of puts us in a comfort zone right now."
The evidence is being brought to an undisclosed forensics facility in the United States for study, a process likely to include DNA testing to determine if any of the body pieces could have belonged to bin Laden or other senior al Qaida leaders.
U.S. intelligence officers operating the drone aircraft fired its remote controlled missile when its video camera relayed images of a group of al Qaida suspects showing deference to a tall man getting into a 4X4 vehicle, Pentagon officials have said.
According to Daoud, the group had been in the area since mid-December, when they used steep mountain passes to escape from the al Qaida cave complex at Tora Bora being pummeled by American B-52s.
The leaders met up with vehicles provided by Leeaz Khel, a Pakistan based local warlord with long standing ties to the Taliban and al Qaida, Daoud says, basing his account on his own surveillance and information he gleaned from residents of the area.
In an ingenious deception, he says, the fugitives boarded a "flying carpet" or public transport bus intended to deceive U.S. air and satellite reconnaissance. After driving all day, the bus met up with 4X4 vehicles into which the al Qaida VIPs transferred for the rough trek to Kote Tangai along a mountain range bordering Pakistan, which was not being targeted by American airstrikes.
The hideout was mainly chosen due to its inaccessibility. At an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level, the village has no road connections with any other town. Daoud says that bin Laden also knew Kote Tangai, having used it as a spiritual retreat prior to the onset of the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
It was there that the group was spotted by Daoud. Although he could not determine the precise identities of the fugitives, he could tell that there were two distinct groups.
He observed how one group, presumed to be the al Qaida leaders, was treated with great deference by a larger group of other men believed to be their servants or bodyguards. The two groups also lived in separate houses, he said.
"I immediately suspected bin Laden was one of them" says the adviser, who was first informed about the location of the fugitives on Dec. 18 while he was on a trip to Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar province. "Only top al Qaida would be protected and treated in that way."
"The bodyguards were passing money around the villagers," says Daoud. "Their leaders only moved outdoors at night."
"You must give me your word that you will go in there and take out these guys without using bombers," Daoud demanded as a condition before he began informing the adviser about the al Qaida fugitives.
Already critical of what he considered an excessive reliance on heavy bomber strikes by the United States, the adviser agreed.
"B-52s were being used in situations where low flying helicopter gunships and ground attack aircraft would have been more effective" says the adviser, a former member of U.S. Special Operations forces. "Not only were we failing to destroy al Qaida's mountain hideouts, the fear of massive airstrikes was inhibiting local people from passing information on al Qaida movements."
At a later meeting on Jan. 12, Daoud informed the adviser that members of the al Qaida fugitive group were going into nearby villages searching for medical supplies, which indicated that at least one of them was wounded or sick.
Heavy snow on the frontier mountain passes at that time was blocking the fugitives' escape route into Pakistan. The adviser sent Daoud back to conduct further surveillance.
"Their precise location had yet to be determined. We also needed to know the exact numbers of al Qaida, their dispositions and their armaments before we could launch a raid," he says. Communications with Daoud were difficult -- neither the adviser nor any other American could go near Kote Tangai.
At a meeting attended by UPI in Jalalabad on Feb. 2 -- the day before the hellfire strike -- Daoud informed the adviser that the al Qaida party had moved into a smaller village nearby in northern Paktia province which was closer to Pakistan, where they were positioned to make a run to the border.
"The Pakistani army would not be a problem," was Daoud's opinion. "They wouldn't stop al Qaida fugitives. A commander in the Pakistani army was arranging the cross border movements" for important members of the group, he said.
Both Leeaz Khel and another powerful local warlord protecting al Qaida, Yunis Khalis, had expensive homes and high-level connections in Pakistan, UPI was told.
Three wounded al Qaida members had been smuggled across the border in recent weeks according to Daoud who also said that the warlords had been given money in Pakistan to protect al Qaida.
A high-level intelligence official in Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that both warlords have a reputation of being pro Taliban sympathizers who gave the appearance of changing sides for convenience.
"When the Taliban were ousted, they just took off their turbans. They would take money from al Qaida but at one point were also accepting support from the British," the official said.
UPI lent Daoud a Pentax mini zoom camera to do a further reconnaissance of the new location where the terrorists were hiding and the adviser went to a local commander to recruit 200 of his men for the raid which would have to take place within a few days.
Daoud was taking pictures of the al Qaida hideout the day prior to the attack by the CIA Predator aircraft. He had reported that the group was occupying 2 different houses and were heavily armed with RPG rocket launchers, heavy machineguns and new Iranian made AKS-74 automatic rifles.
But the adviser didn't have time to assemble and train the necessary force to conduct the raid on the village before one group of seven fugitives made the long expected dash to Pakistan, and were hit by the U.S. Hellfire missile.
Daoud reports that the survivors of the missile attack managed to escape 24 hours before U.S. Special Forces reached the area. "Al Qaida moved out of the village and may have gone into a mountain cave. Before America had the caves targeted. Now they don't know which they are (in)," he said.