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Bin Laden's Physician May Know Where He Is

Thursday, 28 November 2002 12:00 AM

Officials from Pakistan's top spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA -- who believe the doctor knows where bin Laden and other leaders are hiding -- also grilled him about his links with the terrorist network.

"But later they released me with an apology because they could not establish a link between me and al Qaida," says Aziz, adding his Pakistani captors took him "almost daily to an undisclosed location in Islamabad" where the unidentified American agents questioned him.

Aziz, who was arrested from his Lahore home on Oct. 21, was released last week.

He is a man of many faces. The doctor, who is one of Pakistan's most eminent orthopedic surgeons, runs a charity hospital in Lahore where his supporters say he provides free treatment to everybody, no matter what their caste or creed.

He was also the official doctor of the Pakistani cricket team and toured several Western countries with the team.

Pakistani intelligence officials say that Aziz has met bin Laden twice. First in 1999 in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar when the al Qaida leader sprained his back in a fall from his horse.

The second meeting, according these officials, took place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Aziz, however, denies meeting bin Laden after Sept. 11. He says he met the al Qaida chief against in the summer of 2001 during a visit to the Afghan Capital Kabul to donate books and equipment to the medical school.

However, his brother Imran Aziz told reporters in Lahore after the doctor's arrest that Aziz had visited Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime as well. "He went there with a team of doctors to help Afghanistan's poor who have been devastated by more than 20 years of war," said Imran.

"My brother is a doctor and a practicing Muslim who wants to help the Muslims wherever they are in trouble. He has nothing to do with al Qaida," Imran added.

Aziz came into prominence in the mid-1990s when he treated the former chief minister of the Pakistani Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, in London. Impressed by his professional skills and his dedication, Sharif invited him to return to Pakistan from Britain where he was practicing medicine after completing his post-graduate studies.

On his return, Aziz was made the head of the Jinnah Hospital in Lahore. "I soon got fed up with the hospital bureaucracy and resigned," Aziz told a Pakistani newspaper.

Later, he became an unofficial medical adviser to the Sharif government and Sharif also offered him the job of the health minister if he gave up his radical politics. He declined.

He worked briefly for a private hospital and then founded his own "Gharki Charity Hospital" in Lahore where he also treated mujahedin or holy warriors injured in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Reports in the Pakistani press suggest that Aziz also visited Afghanistan, Kashmir and Kosovo to treat Muslim fighters injured there. The doctor does not comment on these reports but says he has treated Afghan, Kashmiri and Bosnian Muslims.

Lahore's The Daily Times newspaper reported last month that when Pakistani intelligence agents arrested Aziz, he was treating an al Qaida activist, Abu Jandal. Aziz rejected the report as baseless.

U.S. intelligence agents first learned about Aziz from the al Qaida and Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Later, Abu Zubaida, so far the highest ranking al Qaida official in U.S. custody, also told his interrogators that Aziz used to treat al Qaida operatives at his hospital.

The Americans conveyed this information to the Pakistanis who brought Aziz to an ISI safe house in Islamabad and arranged for American intelligence agents to interrogate him, Pakistani officials say.

Her mother Zakia Aziz told a news conference in Lahore earlier this month that her son had been under surveillance for more than a year. She said that Aziz was taken to Islamabad once before his arrest as well where American experts forced him to take a polygraph test.

"All these tests and interrogation proved nothing. My son was innocent that's why he was released," said Zakia after Aziz's release.

Aziz also claims innocence but displays a deep knowledge of bin Laden's health and personality. He calls him "a soft-spoken, kind and extremely nice person" and says reports that bin Laden suffers from a kidney disease are incorrect. "He has a fine health," he said.

CIA and other international intelligence agencies have long believed that bin Laden had a kidney problem which restricted his movement.

Pakistani intelligence officials say that before arresting him, they had been monitoring Aziz's telephone and once recorded him in conversation with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Aziz says he does not know Mullah Omar and has never spoken to him.

Pakistani intelligence agencies say that Aziz has been involved in radical Islamic politics since his student days in Lahore. He was also a regular visitor to Raiwind, a center near Lahore which gathers millions of Muslims from across the world for religious training. He was arrested two days before the annual Raiwind gathering.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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Officials from Pakistan's top spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA -- who believe the doctor knows where bin Laden and other leaders are hiding -- also grilled him about his links with the terrorist network. "But later they released me with an apology...
Thursday, 28 November 2002 12:00 AM
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