More than 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters remain holed up in Afghanistan's Arma Mountains in well-stocked caves with neon tube lights, wood stoves and VCRs, according a man who says he has just returned from spending more than a week with the fighters.
In a three-hour interview with NEWSWEEK, Abdul Rahman Beheshti says he provided the Al Qaeda troops with a satellite dish and receiving antenna, a radio, tea, sugar, candies, flour and fruit. He says that most of the fighters, who are living in caves around the village of Shah-i-Kot, are Afghans, but that the group includes many Chechens and Arabs, including a "tall Arab" with sunglasses. Beheshti said the man was not bin Laden, but was being treated deferentially by the others. "They were kissing his hand," Beheshti says.
Beheshti arrived today in Gardez after leaving the caves. He says he was told to deliver a message to local officials working with American commanders in the region: Al Qaeda fighters won't surrender. "They want to either win the war or be martyred," says Beheshti.
It is impossible to independently verify Beheshti's account, or even to confirm that he was in the caves. He was visibly frightened during the interview at a local restaurant, insisting that the door be locked. He claimed his story began last weekend, when he was kidnapped by Al Qaeda fighters in the town of Kolalgo, about an hour south of Gardez, when they caught him setting up a satellite dish for a local man. They took him by car to Shah-i-Kot, reprimanding him for the "un-Islamic" practice of providing satellite technology.
But later in the interview, Beheshti, who works as a television technician, admitted that the fighters merely wanted him to help set up their own satellite television connection so that they could watch the Al Jazeera news network on a 14-inch television they had set up in one of their caves. "They just wanted me to bring a satellite receiver," says Beheshti, , "They didn't care about Sharia (Islamic) law at all."
Beheshti claims he was taken to a vast cave complex by a group of Arabs just before the battle broke out a little more than a week ago. "They took me to [caves] where we couldn't hear the bombs. When more people came, they took me to another cave." In one of the caves, Beheshti claimed he saw seven Afghan prisoners tied and bound with rope. In another, an Al Qaeda fighter with Asian features who Beheshti thinks may have been Chechen, was beating a foreign prisoner. The foreigner had blond hair and a "military haircut" and the Chechen was beating him on the soles of his feet with wooden batons.
During the next few days, Beheshti says he was moved from room to room throughout the cave complex, which he described as having "several entrances" and 200-square-foot rooms linked by tunnels He says the caves are lit with "solar electric generator systems" and that many of the rooms are heated with wood stoves partitioned off with wooden walls and plastic sheeting to keep at least part of the room free of smoke. The walls are lined with Iranian carpets and sponge pillows. "There were books with photos of Osama bin Laden and other books," Beheshti says.
Beheshti confirmed reports that the leader of the Al Qaeda fighters in Shah-i-Kot is Saifur Rahman, the 34-year-old son of the former Taliban agriculture minister. Beheshti claims Saifur Rahman has lost one hand and has only one finger on the other. Beheshti said that he looked "scared" last week, but that he was preaching to his troops about jihad. He says Saifur told them that they should have their "shrouds" with them and that they'll fight "until they're down to one."
Beheshti's report comes as Afghan commanders in Gardez have said they will try to negotiate with the Al Qaeda fighters before launching another attack.