KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Behind a high white wall next to an unpaved road in the Sudanese capital, the two-storey house where Osama bin Laden once lived has remained vacant since the leader of al Qaeda was expelled from Sudan in 1996.
No one wanted to live there after the Saudi-born militant moved out for fear it could become a target. On Monday, America’s enemy No. 1 was killed in a firefight with U.S. forces in another villa, that one near Islamabad in Pakistan.
“The house has been empty since he left,” said a former neighbor to bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks which sparked two U.S.-led wars in the region.
“Nobody wanted to live where Osama had lived. Only some foreigners came but left after one month when they had heard Osama had lived here,” said the man who, like others, did not want to be named.
Tenants feared Washington might bomb it, he said.
Their concerns may not have been misplaced. Washington had been on a global hunt for bin Laden for 10 years and al Qaeda’s leader had drawn down U.S. wrath on Sudan even after he left.
In 1998, the United States fired missiles at El Shifa medicine factory in Khartoum. U.S. officials said it was producing chemical weapons ingredients and was partly owned by bin Laden. Sudan insisted it was only making pharmaceutical drugs.
The attack followed the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Sudan’s neighbor Kenya, which killed at least 226 people including 12 Americans. Those attacks were blamed on al Qaeda.
The gate to bin Laden’s old house is tightly shut. Tree branches grow wildy over the wall from an unkempt garden at the front of the villa in the Al-Riyadh quarter of Khartoum, a neighborhood where wealthier Sudanese and foreigners live.
Residents say bin Laden often walked to a small red mosque in a narrow sideroad next to a large square nearby. “He went every day on foot to the mosque,” the neighbor said.
Sudanese citizens had mixed feelings about bin Laden’s killing. Several condemned the September 11 attacks but praised bin Laden for standing up to the United States, widely seen in the region as a blind supporter of Israel and biased against Muslims.
“I absolutely don’t agree with the 9/11 attack. That was wrong,” said a businessman after parking his car next to a restaurant opposite bin Laden’s former house.
“But other parts of what he said was good. He spoke good things, about the rights of Palestinians or what the Americans did in the Middle East and Afghanistan,” he added.
Bin Laden lived in Sudan for five years, arriving in 1991 after falling out with Saudi Arabia’s ruling family over the kingdom’s participation in the U.S.-led campaign to end Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait.
At first, he found a haven under Sudan’s Islamist government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But he left in 1996 as U.S. and international pressure on Sudan mounted.
The Sudanese government has so far not commented on bin Laden’s killing. It faces a dilemma.
Welcoming his death might bring Khartoum closer to its goal of getting removed from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But it might also anger Islamists and ordinary Sudanese who remember bin Laden’s investments in roads and infrastructure.
“It’s good that he is dead but it would have been better if Muslims had killed him, not the Americans,” said another man, passing with his daughter near bin Laden’s former home.
“Muslims should have solved the issue of bin Laden. Now many people will say the Americans finished him.”
Editing by Edmund Blair in Cairo and Andrew Heavens