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Could Osama hideout become a shrine?

world Updated: May 05, 2011 19:11 IST

AFP
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Pakistan faces the prospect of Osama bin Laden's final hiding place becoming a shrine or macabre tourist spot unless the military destroys a compound attracting hundreds of visitors a day.

While the Americans eased the body of the al Qaeda chief into the Arabian Sea, determined no grave should become a memorial to the militant, the home where he spent his last days is already an object of fascination.

"It is a monument now," said construction supervisor Mohammed Fayaz, 32, a resident in the leafy suburb of Abbottabad, the garrison city where US Special Forces swooped in by helicopter and shot dead bin Laden minutes later.

Reading a local newspaper, with a picture of the notorious compound splashed across the front page, Fayaz expressed fears of militant attacks in what has long been regarded as one of Pakistan's most peaceful cities.

"The whole world will come to see it," he said.

"This could be dangerous for us because anything could happen."

The spacious house with thick, towering walls topped off with barbed wire - albeit less luxurious than some neighbouring residences - has already been earmarked on Google Maps in the "historical landmark" category.

"No street view but loved the seclusion and 'terrorist themed' hotel rooms," joked one among more than a thousand fake reviews on the website.

Outside the residence, the world's media have descended en masse to try to piece together bin Laden's final moments. Crowds of locals have gathered to see it for themselves - many sceptical of the official version of events.

Women in colourful Pakistani attire, some of them from wealthy surrounding areas, mingle with children playing and joking, some of the youngsters calling: "Hey, what's going on Osama?" to any passer-by with a beard.

But for local officials, the fate of the house is a more serious matter.

"More and more people are coming," Mohammad Saleem, a senior police officer at the site said.

"We have no way to know who's a potential Osama supporter and who's not".

So far, there had been no trouble, he said.

On Thursday, troops and police seemed to have given up trying to stop people getting to the location, as they had done in previous days.

People parked their cars just a few hundred metres away, weaving their way on foot across the fields right up to the walls, while correspondents filed live reports in front of the guarded, sealed gates.

Pakistan's military spokesman was not reachable to discuss plans for the compound, but troops fighting against Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates in the tribal belt routinely destroy the homes of militants.

That the compound lies a mile (less than two kilometres) from the Pakistan Military Academy - the country's equivalent of West Point and Sandhurst - makes it even less likely that the armed forces would want to keep the villa intact.

After insisting they did not realise that bin Laden had been living under their noses, the house stands as a public testament to their humiliation.

Zaheer ul-Islam, district administration chief, said authorities would not prevent visitors because "the more you forbid, the more people try to do it."

"It can never become a shrine or a visiting place for Osama bin Laden's supporters because they know that this is a highly sensitive area and neither the military nor us will allow such activity," he said.

Rumours have circulated for several days that the house will be destroyed, but opinions at the scene were mixed.

In a country where 31% of men and 41% of women aged 15 to 24 are illiterate, others have even suggested it be put to good use.

"Some say it should be closed forever, others that is should be demolished. My opinion is that is should be converted into a school," said Ghulam Abbas, the head of police at the site.

But professor Khurshid Ahmed, vice president of the Pakistani Islamist political party Jamaat-i-Islami, suggested fears about a shrine missed the point.

"It's not a question of place, it's a question of idea," he said.

"Whether we like it or not, Osama has become a symbol, for good or worse."