ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani authorities deported Osama bin Laden’s three widows and his children to Saudi Arabia early Friday, less than a week before the first anniversary of the unilateral American raid that killed the al-Qaida leader in his hideout in a military town.
The departure of the family closed another chapter in an affair that cemented Pakistan’s reputation as a hub of Islamist extremism and cast doubt on its trustworthiness as a Western ally.
Once outside Pakistan, the wives may be willing to share any information they have about how bin Laden managed to evade capture in the country for nearly a decade following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
The U.S. commandos took bin Laden’s body, which they later buried at sea, but left his family behind. His wives and children were detained by Pakistani authorities immediately after the pre-dawn raid on May 2, 2011.
Two of the widows are from Saudi Arabia, and the third is from Yemen.
They were interrogated by Pakistani intelligence agents and eventually charged last month with illegally entering and living in the country. The three wives and two adult daughters were convicted and sentenced to 45 days in prison. Their prison term, which was spent at a well-guarded house in Islamabad, ended earlier this month.
Soon after midnight Thursday, a van took the women and children from the house in the center of the capital, Islamabad, en route to the airport. Officials covered the vehicle with sheets to prevent photographers from taking their pictures.
A statement from the Interior Ministry said 14 members of the bin Laden family had been deported to the “country of their choice, Saudi Arabia.” Few details have been released about the family, but officials have said bin Laden had three wives, at least eight children and some grandchildren living with him in the house when it was raided by the Americans.
The Pakistani government has denied knowing the terrorist leader’s whereabouts. U.S. officials say they have no evidence senior Pakistani officials knew bin Laden was in Abbottabad, but questions remain. A Pakistani government commission formed to investigate how bin Laden lived in the country and the circumstances of the American raid has yet to publish its report, but it is widely expected to be a whitewash.
Soon after the raid, American investigators were given access to the wives in Pakistani custody, but one Pakistani intelligence officer has said the women refused to answer their questions.
The Yemeni wife, Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, told Pakistani police that the al-Qaida chief lived in five houses while on the run in Pakistan for nine years and fathered four children, two of whom were born in Pakistani government hospitals.
Saudi officials have given little information about the family and the plan to deport them. The country stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 because of his verbal attacks against the Saudi royal family, and there have been questions about whether the country would accept the women.
Pakistani officials were outraged that the U.S. did not tell them about the operation against bin Laden until after it happened _ a decision American officials explained by saying they were worried the information would be leaked. Relations between the two countries plummeted after the raid and have yet to recover.
Besides facing difficult questions about how bin Laden was able to hide in the country for so long, Pakistan’s army faced unusual domestic criticism because it was unable to stop the American raid from taking place, or even detect it while it was under way.
Last November, U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, dealing another blow to ties still strained from the bin Laden raid. Washington, which needs Pakistani cooperation against al-Qaida and in trying to end the Afghan war, is trying to rebuild the relationship.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)