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Small comfort in Saudi rebel's dangerous exile

Agents mix with gun runners and drug dealers in the hunt for Gulf state's most wanted man, reports Robert Fisk in Afghanistan
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Nangarhar Province - Three tents have already been erected for Osama Bin Laden's three wives. In the grass encampment outside Jalalabad, the families of the Arab mujahedin fighters who have followed the Saudi dissident back to Afghanistan have screened off the tents with canvas, and dug three separate latrines and a drainage ditch. "They will be living here among us," an Egyptian armed with a Kalashnikov rifle told me. "These are ladies who are used to living in comfort."

They will find little in Afghanistan. Many of the Arab families are still billeted in Afghan towns, but they will be gathered here in the coming weeks, defended by their own menfolk and under the eye of more than one foreign intelligence service.

Already, some of the "Afghan Arabs" believe that President Mubarak's government is after them. "Three Egyptian security men have been driving round here in a green pick-up truck," the Egyptian guard said. "We know who they are and have the number of their vehicle. A few days ago, they stopped beside my son and asked him: 'We know you are Abdullah and we know who your father is. Where is Bin Laden?' Then they asked him why I was in Afghanistan."

The man's teenage son, sitting in the grass beside him with a rifle on his lap, confirmed this. "There are people in the towns who work for the Americans and for other people," he said. "We see these people and we have to be careful."

No one is more of a target than Bin Laden himself, whose Arab mujahedin gunmen have been blamed by Arab and Western governments for insurrection in Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the Independent, Bin Laden warned Britain that it must withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia following the killing of 19 Americans by a truck bomb in Dhahran - an incident which he claimed marked the start of a war between Muslims and the United States.

Another of the Arabs in the camp claimed there was "no other country left for Mr Bin Laden" outside Afghanistan. "When he was in Sudan, the Saudis wanted to capture him with the help of Yemenis. We know that the French government tried to persuade the Sudanese to hand him over to them because the Sudanese had given them the South American [Carlos]. The Americans were pressing the French to get hold of Bin Laden in Sudan. An Arab group paid by the Saudis tried to kill him, but Bin Laden's guards fired back and two of the men were wounded. The same people also tried to murder [Hassan] Tourabi [the de facto Islamist leader in Sudan]."

The Bin Laden camp - which is primarily for women and children rather than the Arab men - is vulnerable enough. Only a few strands of barbed wire separate it from the open countryside. "It's very dangerous here - the country is dangerous," the Egyptian said. "The Americans are trying to block the route to Afghanistan for the Arabs. I prefer the mountains. I feel safer there. This place is semi-Beirut."

Indeed it is. Many of the towns and cities of Afghanistan are the haunts of gun runners and drug dealers, each tribal society run by Afghan mafia.

In a nation whose economy has collapsed after seven years of civil war, the cost of betrayal is not high. Bin Laden boasted to the Independent that he would be able to propagate his views by fax and telephone from Afghanistan, a somewhat rash claim, since there is not a single international telephone line in Nangarhar province. He later said that Arab "brothers" outside Afghanistan could communicate his views for him.

Nor can he be under any illusions about the broken country to which he has returned. Bin Laden's mujahedin fought the Soviets in Afghanistan - losing around 500 men whose graves lie near the Pakistan border at Torkhum. After the Russian withdrawal he left for Sudan, disgusted by the Afghans' internecine fighting. Now he is back, but the civil war continues.

Returning from our meeting in Nangarhar province, the vehicle in which I was travelling with several armed Afghans was repeatedly stopped on bridges and road intersections by gunmen. One would crouch in front of the vehicle screaming at us to stop and pointing his rifle at the windscreen, while a second figure would sidle to the driver's door with a pistol and ask for his identification. "Afghanistan very difficult," the driver remarked dryly to me. Osama Bin Laden has chosen a dangerous exile.