SURMAD, Afghanistan – Two months ago, Arab and Chechen fighters showed up at the village of Shah-e-Kot and warned residents to leave or risk being caught up in fighting. Village elders accepted the advice. Now the village is the scene of some of the heaviest clashes of the Afghan war.
"They told people: 'If you want to leave or stay it is up to you," said Roseuddin, a farmer from Shah-e-Kot. "But we're staying in those caves because they were ours in the holy war against Russia,"' referring to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
The Al Qaeda fighters were clearly planning for a protracted siege, he said. They brought with them hundreds of bags of flour and sugar, mortars and cannons.
The Chechens also brought about 100 family members — women and children and appeared prepared for a last stand, Roseuddin said.
Roseuddin, who like many Afghans uses one name, appeared nervous about telling his story. As he spoke on a road outside the nearby town of Surmad, he watched a U.S. reconnaissance plane overhead. He looked warily every time an Afghan walked by.
"Everyone is afraid to talk to foreigners," his friend Kadr Shah explained. "Refugees from Shah-e-Kot think if anyone finds out they have information, the Americans will grab them and take them away."
Just before the attack began last weekend, Roseuddin said, he returned to his village pulling a donkey loaded with wood to hide "property" he had gone to retrieve.
He wouldn't identify the property, but Shah said Roseuddin wanted to get his Kalashnikov rifles — an essential possession for an Afghan man.
Roseuddin said he found the number of Arabs, Chechens and others had dwindled from about 2,000 in December to around 600.
Those who remained appeared well-armed with mortars, small cannons, heavy machine guns and assault rifles.
Although most were Arabs and Chechens, he said there were some Afghan Taliban and "just a couple" of Pakistanis.
Roseuddin said they were under the command of an Afghan Taliban, Saif Rahman, nephew of the former Taliban agriculture minister Latif Mansour.
Both Rahman and Mansour were known to have close links with Usama bin laden and his Al Qaeda terror network.
There has been no suggestion that either bin Laden or the former Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is at Shah-e-Kot.
After moving into the village in December, the Al Qaeda leaders told the villagers they should leave for their own good because "if the fighting starts, you will be killed," Roseuddin said.
Village elders held a traditional council meeting, or loya jirga, and decided to go. Roseuddin said the fighters gave them vehicles and moved residents out.
About 250 residents of Shah-e-Kot are now living in the villages in the plains of the nearby Surmad district.
Shah, a bus driver who fought the Soviets, said "thousands and thousands of Arabs" had come to this area after Kabul fell to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance Nov. 13.
From Kabul, they made their way to Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold. After the Taliban evacuated Kandahar on Dec. 7, they headed northeastward toward the rugged mountains here, he said.
"Some of the same men I took to Kanadahar suddenly I saw them here again," Shah said. "But many have left."
Shah said many of the foreign fighters who had sought refuge in the area sent their families away starting in January, paying smugglers to elude Pakistani border guards.
Pakistan sealed its borders with Paktia province at the start of the offensive to prevent Al Qaeda fighters from finding sanctuary in the lawless area along the border.