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A Nondescript Harbor for Wanted Men

Asia: Alleged Sept. 11 plotter and others seized in Pakistan 'lived in a quiet fashion' in a Karachi building, neighbors say.

September 19, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KARACHI, Pakistan — The building is a plain white concrete box on a commercial street in the part of the city known as the Defense Section. The only ornamental touch is the gray-tile facing on the corners. A more nondescript setting in a more undistinguished area of this densely packed metropolis is hard to imagine.

It was here that Pakistani authorities tracked down one of the world's most wanted men: Ramzi Binalshibh, the Yemeni who allegedly sent money to the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and who might have been a hijacker himself if not repeatedly denied a U.S. visa.

One week after the raids that netted Binalshibh and 10 other Al Qaeda suspects, police remain posted outside the chained and padlocked entrance to No. C-63 15th St. Only a few passersby stop to gape at its bullet-pocked facade.

Even the beige curtains of the third-floor apartment where Binalshibh was living are ripped and perforated by gunfire.

On the balcony, someone has planted a Pakistani flag--a small symbol of victory for what President Pervez Musharraf has hailed as one of his country's greatest achievements in its battle against terrorists.

Through an open window, a plastic bag on the floor and a crushed water bottle can be seen from a neighboring building, but the flat itself has no visible furnishings.

Neighbors say the Arabs who lived there apparently slept on carpets, keeping few possessions--a sign that they may have moved frequently.

Zeshan, an employee at a public relations firm in an adjoining building, said no one suspected that behind the curtains lived "serious" terrorists. "We had no idea that they were foreigners and Al Qaeda," he said.

Pointing to the window facing their office 15 feet away, he said that he and co-workers put up curtains out of politeness when they noticed that the apartment had become inhabited three or four months ago. They wanted to respect the privacy of the woman and two children they could occasionally glimpse over there. Only once did he see the man of the family; he appeared fair complexioned with a slight beard and was of medium height.

The apartment would not have been very expensive; flats on this street go for less than $130.

Neighbors say that both the real estate agent who rented the apartment and the building owner, a woman who lives in the suburbs, have been taken into custody for questioning.

The tenants "lived in a quiet fashion and never created any problem," said Zeshan, who goes by one name.

Nisar Shah, who lives in the building across the street, said the second-floor apartment also was occupied, by six or seven youths of foreign origin.

He would see them occasionally at night playing cards on the roof, where they had installed a large satellite dish, but he said they almost never came out of the building during the day.

Zeshan said last week's first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks started normally for him. He arrived at work about 9:15 a.m. and noticed nothing unusual on the street.

About half an hour later, he heard two explosions and was stunned to see 100 to 150 police officers in the street firing into the neighboring building. At first, he thought that police had caught robbers in the act at an electrical store. Soon the police, who included members of Pakistan's elite paramilitary Rangers, had taken up firing positions on nearby roofs.

As authorities explained later, they had developed information from a satellite phone interception that Al Qaeda suspects were living in the building. When they went to arrest the inhabitants, some suspects surrendered.

The woman--barefoot, dressed in a white veil and a colorful traditional dress--ran out of the building with her children before being whisked off by police. But others inside responded by throwing grenades that injured some of the police officers.

After that, the police and Rangers launched tear-gar canisters and opened fire in a gun battle that did not end until nearly 12:30 p.m.

Among those who surrendered was Binalshibh, who was led out blindfolded and dressed in a blue T-shirt. Later in the day, police also brought out the corpses of two Al Qaeda suspects who had been killed. The bodies, wrapped in bloodied sheets, were placed into an ambulance to be taken to a morgue. Six police officers were wounded.

A reporter who reached the roof opposite the building said that after the battle, he could see one of those killed lying face down on the floor as members of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, riffled through a pouch of documents they took from the top of an air-conditioning unit.

The whole incident has left neighbors puzzled. What were the Al Qaeda fugitives doing here? How were they traced to this spot? If they were really desperate terrorists, why were they not able to put up a more effective resistance?

"Living in a commercial area like this, it is difficult to accept that they were such wanted men," said Salim Mahmood, Zeshan's employer at Media Strategists. "If I was one of them, I would not have chosen a street on which over 1,000 cars pass every day, a place where if you stick your head out you wind up in someone else's window.

"Frankly speaking, it is all very curious."

*

Special correspondent Shamim ur-Rehman contributed to this report.

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