ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — When a woman involved in a polio vaccine drive turned up at Osama bin Laden's hideaway, she remarked to the men behind the high walls about the expensive SUVs parked inside. The men took the vaccine, apparently to administer to the 23 children at the compound, and told her to go away.
The terror chief and his family kept well hidden behind thick walls in this northwestern hill town they shared with thousands of Pakistani soldiers. But glimpses of their life are emerging — along with deep skepticism that authorities didn't know they were there.
It's unclear why bin Laden chose Abbottabad as the place to stay, but at least two other top al-Qaida leaders have sheltered here. The town's bustling streets are dotted with buildings left over from British colonial days. These days it attracts tourists, but is known mostly as a garrison town.
Bin Laden found it safe enough to stay for up to six years, according to U.S. officials, a stunning length of time to remain in one place right under the noses of a U.S.-funded army which had ostensibly been trying to track him down. Most intelligence assessments believed him to be along the Afghan-Pakistan border, perhaps in a cave.
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Construction of the three-story house began about seven years ago. Aside from its size, the house doesn't stand out from the others in the neighborhood, where residents tend to be very religious and jealous of their privacy. The walls are mold-stained, there are trees in the garden and the windows are hidden.
Those who live nearby said the people in bin Laden's compound rarely strayed outside. Most were unaware that foreigners — bin Laden and his family are Arabs — were living there.
Khurshid Bibi, in her 70s, said one man living in the compound had given her a lift to the market in the rain. She said her grandchildren played with the kids in the house and that the adults there gave them rabbits as a gift.
But the occupants also attracted criticism.
"People were skeptical in this neighborhood about this place and these guys. They used to gossip, say they were smugglers or drug dealers. People would complain that even with such a big house they didn't invite the poor or distribute charity," said Mashood Khan, a 45-year-old farmer.
Some residents said they would most often see two men who would occasionally attend a neighborhood gathering, such as a funeral. Both men were tall, fair skinned and bearded and described themselves as cousins from elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan.
Questions persisted about how authorities could not have known who was living in the compound.
Police officer Nazir Ahmad said police visit hotels daily to obtain copies of passports of foreigners staying there. He says real estate agents have to inform police if they rent out property to a foreigner.
Abbottabad police chief Mohammad Naeem said the police follow the procedures very strictly but "human error cannot be avoided."Video: Behind the walls of bin Laden's secretive compound (on this page)
The government said in a statement that the 23 children and nine women in the house were now "in safe hands and being looked after in accordance with law. As per policy, they will be handed over to their countries of origin."
Reporters were allowed to get as far as the walls of the compound for the first time, but the doors were sealed shut and police were in no mood to open them.
Neighbors showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that Washington said malfunctioned and was disabled by the American strike team as they retreated. A small servant's room outside the perimeter showed signs of violent entry and a brisk search, with clothes and bedding tossed to the ground. Its wall clock was on the floor, the time stuck at 2:20, when the U.S. team would have been on the ground early Monday.
Abbottabad has so far been spared the terrorist bombings that have scarred much of Pakistan over the last four years.
Like many Pakistani towns where the army has a strong presence, Abbottabad is well-manicured, and has solid infrastructure. There are street signs that tell residents to "Love Pakistan." It also is known for its good schools, many of which were originally established by Christian missionaries.
Little girls wear veils while carrying Hannah Montana backpacks to school. Many houses in the outlying areas have modern amenities, but lie along streets covered with trash. Shepherds herd their flock of sheep along dusty roads just a few hundred yards from modern banks.
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