The house of secrets: behind the high walls of Osama's compound

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For years, neighbours wondered what went on in the mysterious 'rich person's house'. Now they know

They thought the house belonged to a drug-dealer, or perhaps a smuggler, and local people had learned to leave it well alone. When the milkman delivered he did not even ring the bell but simply left it outside the green double gates. If anyone ever stopped and leaned against the cream coloured wall someone would emerge and tell them to clear off. Cricket-playing children who exuberantly hit their shots over the compound's high, barbed-wire topped walls were given money to go the local shop, but they were never allowed inside to retrieve their ball.

"There was a rumour that the person living there was a smuggler from Peshawar," said Hussain Jaffri, a resident of the Thanda Choha neighbourhood of Abbottabad, and whose house overlooked the compound occupied by Osama bin Laden. "In this area, when there is a large house you know it's black money, perhaps from white powder."

Amid the dusty lanes and neatly planted fields where Bin Laden's unwitting neighbours lived and worked, a picture emerged yesterday of a close-knit community that was suspicious about the occupants of the three-storey compound and yet who, for whatever reason, chose to make no further inquiries. "When there is a rumour like this, you don't want to go and knock on the door," Mr Jaffri said.

Locals said the occupants of the compound, replete with a poplar and peach trees, had minimal interaction with their neighbours. They did not celebrate national or religious holidays, they did not pass the time of day with other people and they had few dealings with traders. One occupant, said to be called Nadeem, left the compound every day in a red Suzuki minivan to collect supplies. Every day he returned with a goat, presumably for slaughter. No one said they had ever caught a glimpse of the 54-year-old Saudi fugitive, said to have lived on the upper two floors.

"It was a rich person's house. Only a rich person could afford a house like that. Only that house had the high walls," said Tanvir Ahmed, who runs an ice-cream shop. "If a child's ball went over the wall they would not be allowed in to get it. They would be given money instead – about 150 rupees [£1]."

Umar Daniel Alvi, a 16-year-old who played football and cricket close to the house said: "There was a rumour in the neighbourhood that it was occupied by the nephew of [late Taliban leader] Baitullah Mehsud. I went there on two occasions when we hit the ball over. I tried to get it but there was nobody there."

The compound had been designed as if discouraging curious eyes was a top priority. In addition to the high walls, gaps in the brickwork that could have allowed a view inside were cemented shut. A full-length window opening onto the street was also filled in. Anyone seeking entry had to use an intercom. "We never saw anyone making deliveries there," said Zahn Mohammad, who lived opposite the compound.

Yet by far the most remarkable thing about the property, that some locals had nicknamed Waziristan Haveli (mansion) because its residents were thought to be Pashtuns from Pakistan's tribal areas, was its location. Less than half a mile away stands the Kakul military academy, a prestigious military school where two weeks ago Pakistan's military chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, gave a speech claiming the armed forces had broken the back of the militancy that has so rocked the country.

Closer still – less than 100 yards from the compound's 15ft walls that are topped with three strands of barbed wire – is the well-maintained house of Major Amir Aziz, an officer believed to be serving with the army's medical corps. Locals said Mr Aziz had lived there for many years and that his father had occupied the property before that. Yesterday no one answered the door when The Independent knocked, though young children could be seen inside. The major's neighbour, a woman who gave her name as Bibi Saida, said Mr Aziz was well-known in the neighbourhood. As for the people who had lived in the compound beyond, her comments echoed those of many others. "We don't know anything," she said. "We are so shocked."

Many have asked how Bin Laden and his small group could have been living here, so close to the heart of the Pakistan establishment without anyone knowing. If neighbours had suspicions then why did the police never investigate, especially given the compound's proximity to the military academy? Why does it seem the occupants never even tried to develop a plausible cover story for their presence in this neighbourhood, made up largely of ethnic Hazara people? The arrest in Abbottabad earlier this year of al-Qa'ida suspect, Umar Patek, has added further intrigue. "I would think it's probably complicity at some level, otherwise it would be impossible," said analyst Talat Masood, a former senior army officer. "People in Pakistan want to know who is living next [door]. Someone must have been going in and coming out. I'm puzzled and ashamed."

Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, yesterday claimed it had raided the compound in 2003 when it was being constructed but had since then it had been "off the radar". A local land registry official, Mohsin Arshad, said the property had been bought in the mid 2000s by Arshad Khan and his brother, who came from Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. What has happened to the brothers remains unclear. They also kept themselves to themselves, locals said.

One of the rare instances of interaction between the occupants of the compound and the local people involved Nadeem, driver of the red minivan, and an 11-year-old girl called Asra Amjad. The young girl saw Nadeem collecting grass and asked him what it was for. He told her that he kept rabbits in the compound. A few days later the driver came to the family house with two rabbits for Asra and her family. The youngster had no insight into who the rabbits may have belonged to. But she and her brother were happy to have them as their pets, scampering on the roof that overlooks the compound, an unlikely reminder of their unlikely neighbours.

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