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It was just before midnight Nov. 21 when Russian-made Antonov aircraft without markings began landing at the bombed-out airport of Konduz in northern Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance’s conquest of the Afghan city was still five days away, and a small group of Pakistani military intelligence officers and soldiers – all of whom had been serving with the Taliban – waited anxiously on a runway, together with a large number of Pakistanis wounded in battle lying on blankets. The planes were coming to take them home.

Around 5 p.m. earlier that day, U.S. bombings of the airport had suddenly stopped. As they waited for the airlift, the Pakistanis understood the rescue of their men trapped in Konduz had been set up in a silent agreement between their government, or commanding officers, and the U.S. Two planes were to touch down every night to pick them up until the evacuation was finished.

But as the airlift began, Pakistani air crews and their passengers were astonished to see they had company on the runways of Konduz – a second fleet of Antonov transports was running a parallel airlift on some mysterious mission.

Military sources have solved the mystery: The planes belonged to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Under cover of the Pakistani airlift, 3,000 of the group’s fighters were secretly lifted to safety from the besieged towns of Konduz and Khandabad about 15 miles to the south. The double airlift lasted five nights. The planes arriving to ferry Pakistani fighters home were closely shadowed by a phantom airlift extracting al-Qaida personnel.

The rescued Pakistanis were flown to air bases in northwest and central Pakistan. The al-Qaida men were taken long distance to the Persian Gulf emirates, landing, according to Gulf sources, in Abu Dhabi and the Somali town of Baidoa.

The al-Qaida fighters were described by several sources in Abu Dhabi as arriving hungry, in rags and without identifying documents. Asked who they were, they claimed to be Pakistani construction workers who had paid out all their savings to reach the Gulf in search of employment. But they soon disappeared, trucked to the Saudi and Yemen frontiers and apparently put down to cross on foot.

On Tuesday, Dec. 18, Yemeni special forces engaged a group of just-landed senior al-Qaida operatives in the al Husoun tribal region of Marib but met fierce resistance and were repulsed after losing 17 men.

At Baidoa, Somalia, too, immediately after landing, al-Qaida partisans mingled with the local Somalis living in thousands of straw and mud huts in the airport environs. Then the trucks came and drove a batch to the Somali-Kenyan frontier. They later continued to Uganda. Others moved through the villages scattered on Somalia’s Indian Ocean coast before they, too, disappeared.

The al-Qaida evacuation of Konduz got away behind American backs. But when a similar airlift began two weeks ago at the international airport of the last Taliban-al-Qaida fortress of Kandahar, the Americans caught on in time to stall it by bombing the runways. There was one last al-Qaida escape route that the United States did not manage to plug: across the 1,400-mile long frontier into Pakistan. There, they were driven to small airfields and airstrips in the northwest and flown to the Gulf and Somalia.

According to intelligence sources, U.S. and Pakistani agents are investigating the source of the reports claiming that al-Qaida and bin Laden had concealed themselves in the Tora Bora cave complex and the White Mountains abutting on the Pakistani frontier – to fight to the last man. Those reports may have been part of a deliberate deception. It is now clear that no more than 200 to 300 al-Qaida fighters actually hid up in Tora Bora as bait to misdirect the Pashtun and U.S. Special Forces hunters. Small groups moved from cave to cave to keep the searchers and U.S. bombers occupied and unaware of the main body of the al-Qaida force, which meanwhile escaped into Pakistan.

They, too, were flown on to Abu Dhabi and Somalia.

One source even suggests that last week’s daylight suicide attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi may too have been part and parcel of al-Qaida’s grand escape scheme. According to this theory, the Kashmiri terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba’s raid, in which 14 people died, including the five assailants, was intended as a diversion.

Lashkar-e-Toiba is known to be controlled by al-Qaida and pro-Taliban elements in Pakistani military intelligence. The suicide mission was not intended, as India claimed, to carry out a massacre but, according to terror experts, to raise military tensions between India and Pakistan in the hope of reciprocal troop buildups on either side of the Kashmir partition line.

Al-Qaida hoped this would result in the thinning out of Pakistan combat forces stationed on the Afghan frontier to seal it off to escape and divert the attention of Pakistan intelligence away from that frontier, too.

The coast would be then left clear for al-Qaida men to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

U.S. intelligence officers briefing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during his first visit to Afghanistan Tuesday had to admit that the majority of the Taliban’s fighting force had vanished and, moreover, the bulk of al-Qaida’s fighting force and its commanders, apparently including bin Laden, also got away.

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