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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghans Flee Kabul Fearing Retaliation

ReutersAfghans buying clothes Thursday at a market in Kabul. For many, life goes on as usual, but some locals fear U.S. reprisal attacks.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Frightened Afghans braced Thursday for possible U.S. retaliation for the devastating terror attacks on New York and Washington as Arab residents fled the capital or began digging trenches on the outskirts of the city.

With U.S. investigators increasingly convinced that Saudi-born dissident Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, many Afghans fear it is just a matter of time before they are made to pay for the ruling Taliban giving him sanctuary.

While it was not immediately clear how many Arab nationals live in Afghanistan, residents said almost all had left central Kabul.

Afghan-Arabs -- a term encompassing virtually all non-Afghan Moslem militants regardless of their origin -- were also reported to have evacuated their bases elsewhere in the country.

But there was little sympathy from bin Laden himself.

An aide, who spoke by satellite telephone to Abu Dhabi television in Pakistan, quoted him as saying that while he had nothing to do with the attacks, they were "punishment from Allah."

"I have no information about the attackers or their aims, and I don't have any links with them," the aide quoted bin Laden as saying.

The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said bin Laden had been cut off from all outside communication -- including telephone and internet -- and so it would have been impossible for him to have coordinated the attack.

Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban information minister, dismissed reports bin Ladin had been detained in Kandahar, the Taliban headquarters, saying his status had not changed in two years.

"He has been under surveillance for the past two years. Osama has been deprived from any communication means since then and the case is the same now too," Jamal said from Kandahar.

"He is now in an unknown location and, as before, has no means of contact with the outside world."

Kabul residents, meanwhile, said they had seen people digging trenches on the outskirts of the city, and that other fortifications were also being made.

With television banned, Kabul residents could be seen with small transistor radios pressed to their ears listening to foreign broadcasts for news of the disaster.

The capital has already come under fire this week, after anti-Taliban forces used helicopter gunships to raid the city's airport in retaliation for an assassination attempt -- in which bin Laden was also implicated -- on its military commander, Ahmad Shah Masood.

Despite growing fears, Kabul remained largely calm Thursday with markets and bazaars bustling as normal.

But residents said they were frightened and scared, and most saw retaliation as a matter of course.

Diplomats from Australia, Germany and the United States -- in Kabul with a number of relatives of eight Christian aid workers on trial for promoting Christianity -- left for Pakistan.

"We did not sense any difference than any other day," U.S. diplomat David Donahue said on arrival. "There was nothing going on in Kabul. It was quiet when we left."

The United Nations also withdrew its last remaining international staff Thursday, but the International Committee of the Red Cross said most of its foreign staff would remain.

Washington has vowed to strike back with a "hammer of vengeance" against those responsible for the attacks, but the Taliban warned retaliatory U.S. strikes would succeed only in sowing hatred in the region.