OSAMA bin Laden was holed up in a two-storey house 100 metres from a Pakistani military academy when the four helicopters carrying US forces swooped.
In what is likely to be one of the most spectacular operations in US intelligence history, the special forces team killed the world’s most wanted man and left his fortified final hiding place in flames.
Pakistani officials and witnesses said bin Laden’s guards opened fire from the roof of the compound in the small northwestern town of Abbottabad, and one of the choppers crashed and had to be destroyed.
The sound of at least two explosions rocked Abbottabad as the fighting raged.
The US said no Americans were hurt, but officials said the raid left three men and a woman dead, including a son of the al-Qa’ida chief, officials said. Women and children were also taken into custody.
Abbottabad is home to three Pakistan army regiments and thousands of military personnel and is dotted with military buildings.
The discovery that bin Laden was living in an army town in Pakistan raises pointed questions about how he managed to evade capture and even whether Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership knew of his whereabouts and sheltered him.
Critics have long accused elements of Pakistan’s security establishment of protecting bin Laden, though Islamabad has always denied this.
Most intelligence assessments believed bin Laden was holed up somewhere along the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, possibly in a cave and sheltered by loyal tribesmen. That region is remote, homes to soaring mountains and the Pakistan state has little or no presence in much of it.
It was not known how long bin Laden had been in Abbottabad, which is surrounded by hills and is less than half a day’s drive from the border region with Afghanistan and two hours from the capital, Islamabad.
It was also unclear how much of a role – if any – Pakistani security forces played in the operation. A Pakistani official said the choppers took off from Ghazi air base in northwest Pakistan, where the US army was based to help out in the aftermath of the floods in 2010.
Pakistani officials said a son of bin Laden and three other people were killed.
Other unidentified males were taken by helicopter away from the scene, while four children and two woman left in an ambulance, the official said.
Abbottabad resident Mohammad Haroon Rasheed said the raid happened about 1.15 am local time.
“I heard a thundering sound, followed by heavy firing. Then firing suddenly stopped. Then more thundering, then a big blast,” he said. “In the morning when we went out to see what happened, some helicopter wreckage was lying in an open field.”
He said the house was 100 metres from the gate of the Kakul Military Academy, an army-run institution where top officers train.
A Pakistani official in the town said fighters on the roof opened fire on the choppers as they came close to the building with rocket propelled grenades.
Another local resident said he heard helicopters circling overhead before heavy gunfire erupted shortly after midnight.
“People were sleeping. I heard helicopters roaring in the sky,” the man said.
“I woke up and then heavy firing started. It was severe. It continued for quite some time, then I heard a heavy explosion. It was huge. People woke up and came out of their houses. We didn’t know what is going on.”
“We heard ambulance sirens and security people shouting. We saw flames coming out of one place. Everybody is scared. I am afraid.”
Pakistan has in the past cooperated with the CIA in arresting al-Qa’ida suspects on its soil, but relations between its main intelligence agency and the CIA had been very strained in recent months amid tensions over the future of Afghanistan.
In late January, a senior Indonesian al-Qa’ida operative, Umar Patek, was arrested at another location in Abbottabad.
News of his arrest only broke in late March. A Pakistani intelligence official said its officers were led to the house where Patek was staying after they arrested an al-Qa’ida facilitator, Faisal Shahzad, who worked at the post office there.