PESHAWAR, Pakistan, April 21 (UPI) -- Osama Bin Laden has been hidden by sympathizers in the dusty slum city of Peshawar, a gigantic labyrinth of 3.5 million people, since early December, according to a major tribal leader.
Speaking on condition his name not be used, the man who commands the loyalty of over half a million tribesmen said that his information was that the world's most wanted terrorist crossed over into Pakistan Dec. 9 as the Pakistani army began deploying a brigade of 4,500 troops along a 30-mile-long stretch of mountainous border.
He is the same tribal chieftain who told United Press International last December that his tribal scouts knew "within one square kilometer" the whereabouts of bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountain range, even as U.S.-allied Afghan forces with American air support scoured that area for him, and engaged his fighters.
Pakistani military officers conceded privately it would have taken almost 100,000 men to hermetically seal the frontier -- as the government announced it had done -- from the Khyber Pass west to Parachinar, a border town in the Kurram tribal agency.
The Pakistani deployment was subsequently increased to 12,500 and then gradually decreased as the Tora Bora battle subsided and the crisis with India threatened to explode into a military confrontation between two nuclear powers.
This was the first time the Pakistani army had entered the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas since independence 55 years ago. The area -- stretched along the remote border with Afghanistan -- is home to Pashtun tribes hundreds of thousands strong, who answer to no law except the word of their chiefs.
Bin Laden, according to the tribal chief's account, escaped from Tora Bora with about 50 of his fighters through the Tirah valley -- the most inaccessible part of Pakistan's tribal belt, populated by fiercely independent tribesmen traditionally hostile to Pakistan.
When this reporter was in the tribal area between Dec. 11 and 16, accompanied by a multilingual assistant and a security guard, we were warned by this same tribal leader to stay out of Tirah "as you are certain to be kidnapped for ransom."
A Pakistani battalion negotiated its way into Tirah two days after bin Laden and his cohorts had made it safely out of the valley. There they split up into smaller groups, according to this same account.
Pakistani roadblocks were not set up until Dec. 17 after word got out that al Qaida fighters were escaping from Tora Bora into Pakistan by the hundreds. Eventually about 1,000 of them -- mostly Arabs and Pakistanis -- fled Afghanistan. Pakistani army patrols and police arrested some 400 but the rest disappeared, presumably in Peshawar rather than smaller towns and villages where they would be quickly spotted.
Bin Laden, the chieftain said, made it into Peshawar by truck and has been in hiding "with medical attention" ever since.
He could not confirm whether bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, a former physician, was with him.
Peshawar is to the cloak-and-dagger world of plots and counterplots, and arms and narcotics smuggling, what Casablanca was to such skullduggery in World War II. Organized crime in this city is, for the most part, in Afghan hands. The Khyber Pass and Afghan border is 30 minutes away by car.
Taliban leaders have kept houses there and in Quetta, capital of the nearby province of Baluchistan, since they started their conquest of Afghanistan in 1994. They received their religious training in the Islamic schools or Madrasas of the greater Peshawar region.
The tribal leader said he thought bin Laden was safe in Peshawar as he was still a hero to the man-in-the-street. Locating the whereabouts of an individual concealed in this capital of the Northwest Frontier Province is like hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Only harder. People jostle shoulder to shoulder in narrow dirt streets lined with hole-in-the-wall stalls that sell everything from ecstasy pills to computer chips.
The combined intelligence and security forces of Pakistan, under direct presidential orders, assisted by U.S. communications intercept technology, were unable to locate where Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was being held in Karachi, a port city of 13 million, prior to his execution.
Peshawar also played a key role in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Six major resistance groups were headquartered here, along with numerous agents from the CIA and Saudi Arabian intelligence.
President Pervez Musharraf denied last week that the U.S. ever told him that bin Laden was in Pakistan after fleeing from Afghanistan.
"Americans have never mentioned OBL's presence in Pakistan," he told the Daily Jang newspaper Friday, using the wanted man's initials.
The tribal leader, known to UPI as a reliable source since March 2001, also 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 agency that nurtured the Taliban movement as it began to grow in Pakistan in the early 1990s and then sustained it after it became the government of Afghanistan in 1996. ISI also maintained links to bin Laden and his al Qaida terrorist organization.
The UPI tribal source said Taliban and al Qaida fighters now in Pakistan are being instructed to infiltrate back into Afghanistan "to kill Americans and other foreign troops."
Leaflets recently began appearing in the Afghan city of Kandahar that praised Palestinian suicide bombers and said, "We need to display similar courage today."
The populace was urged to collect information on all foreigners operating in their areas, and warned that anyone assisting the Americans would be killed "just like mad dogs."
Former President Burhannudin Rabbani warned the day after ex-king Mohammad Zahir Shah's return to Kabul from his Italian exile last week, that efforts to sideline Islamic parties -- including by implication factions who supported the Taliban -- would only "create distrust and a new crisis."
Pakistani Foreign Office officials said on condition of anonymity that more than 60 al Qaida operatives were arrested along with Abu Zubaida, the organization's third highest-ranking member, in a raid in Faisalabad two weeks ago.
Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency officers, accompanied by U.S. FBI agents, these same officials said, were acting on a U.S. intercept of a brief satellite phone conversation between Zubaida and bin Laden.
Towns and villages in Pakistan's tribal belt still display Bin Laden posters and pro-al Qaida and Taliban slogans, daubed on everything from rocks to adobe mud brick dwellings.
The United States would like to have the right to hot pursuit of Taliban and al Qaida fighters across the Afghan border into Pakistani tribal areas, but Musharraf has made clear that such an okay from him would seriously jeopardize the April 30 referendum on his request for five more years as President, as well as feed ammunition to his opponents in next October's national elections.
American visitors frequently ask why no one has been tempted by the $25 million reward posted by the U.S. for information leading to bin Laden's capture.
The tribal chief echoed other Pakistani politicians when he said, "it's such a high figure no one believes it and it is usually dismissed as another empty American promise."