Policemen stand guard at the sealed gate of the building where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad. (AFP)
Abbottabad, May 3: Perhaps nothing was as surprising in the hunt for Osama bin Laden as the last place he chose to hide.
The sprawling compound is hemmed by a forested ridge and a quiet neighbourhood of pastel-coloured homes adorned with columns and terrazzo porches — a far cry from the caves or rough tribal lands where most people thought the al Qaida leader might be.
The city of Abbottabad itself is known not for any connections to Islamic militants but for its mountain breezes, well-kept avenues and educational institutions, including Pakistans most renowned academy for military officers.
Residents of the adjacent Bilal Town neighbourhood acknowledge they were curious about what went on on the other side of the 15-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire. It appeared as a fortress with a white, two-storey structure at its heart.
All they really knew was that security cameras spied on anyone who approached. And except for a stout man driving a red van, they never saw anyone coming or going.
They got their answer early yesterday when low-flying helicopters carrying the American forces coming for Osama rattled their windows, waking them up. Then, the shooting started. Later in the day, the compound was hidden behind a high, red screen. Pakistani soldiers restricted access at a checkpoint about a kilometre down the road. A truck hauled the burned wreckage of a helicopter out of the neighbourhood.
Its shocking to realise there was an internationally known terrorist living here, said Saifullah Zarsheed, who lives a couple of hundred yards from the compound where Bin Laden was killed. But when you look at the place, it was a very suitable place for him and his people.
The Pakistani military, which the Obama administration says it kept in the dark about the mission, made sure yesterday that throngs of journalists stayed at a distance. The screen erected around the compounds perimetre cordoned off the grounds. But a passage through alleys and lanes led to a rooftop about 200 yards away, from which dozens of soldiers could be seen walking in and around the site.
Abbottabad, a city of 500,000 people, has a look and feel thats light-years from the caves of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where Osama first fled after the September 11 attacks nearly a decade ago.
Nor is it anything like the rugged terrain of Waziristan, the tribal border area where al Qaida had continued to plan and operate with the help of local Taliban militants — and where many people thought Osama was hiding.
Abbottabad residents say proudly that their city doesnt know the sound of suicide bombings or the scourge of assassinations.
Its streets are dotted with colleges and military installations, the most famous of which is the Pakistan Military Academy, the countrys most renowned training centre for officers. Hotels abound, a testament to the areas lure as a summer vacation destination far from the brutal heat of Karachi or Multan.
Abbottabad is such a peaceful city — I cant ever recall a terrorist incident happening here, and this isnt a place where there ever has been any militant activity, said Shehryar Khan, a 21-year-old college student.
The fact that Abbottabad has such a significant military footprint raises questions about whether some in Pakistans security establishment were aware of Bin Ladens presence.
Washington has long suspected that factions within Pakistans security establishment were aware of his whereabouts and failed to act on that knowledge.
Pakistani officials have denied those claims.
President Obama said the US learned in August that Osama might be in Abbottabad, but it was not clear how long he had been there.