WASHINGTON: The United States revealed that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when US commandos shot him dead and that Pakistani authorities were kept in the dark because they might have tipped off the al-Qaeda leader.
Unusually frank remarks from the CIA chief betrayed the extent of distrust between the United States and Pakistan, a nucleararmed ally and key partner in the war against the resurgent Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission,” Leon Panetta told Time magazine.
“They might alert the targets.”
US officials, meanwhile, debated whether to scotch conspiracy theories by releasing a “gruesome” photo of the dead Osama, conscious that such an image would likely inflame strong passions in some Muslim countries.
The White House gave the fullest account yet of the dramatic and momentous raid that killed the architect of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and sparked scenes of relief and joy around the Western world.
But officials did not clearly explain why Osama was shot dead and not captured given that he was unarmed, fuelling speculation that the elite Navy Seal team had been ordered on a kill mission.
“In the room with Osama, a woman — Osama’s wife — rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Osama was then shot and killed. He was not armed.” When pressed further, Carney said there had been significant resistance, a “volatile firefight,” and insisted: “We were prepared to capture him if that was possible.”
The fact that, after a yearslong manhunt, Osama turned up in a fortified compound in Abbottabad, home to the Pakistani equivalent of the West Point and Sandhurst elite military academies just two hours’ drive north of the capital Islamabad, has been greeted with incredulity.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has rejected as “baseless” charges that his country extends safe haven to extremists, but outraged US lawmakers are calling for billions of dollars in aid to be cut back or dropped entirely.
In Pakistan itself, where anti-US feeling runs high, conspiracy theories have proliferated after Osama’s body was buried in the Arabian Sea off a US warship.
Police yesterday closed the Bilal suburb of Abbottabad to media and the public, after crowds gathered following revelations the al-Qaeda chief had been living there in secrecy, in a compound surrounded by towering outer walls.
“More than 300 armed policemen have been deployed at the entry points, as well as in the town and close to the house, for security reasons,” a local police official said on condition of anonymity, without giving further details.
Local residents returning to their houses were bodysearched and their ID cards checked, with some labourers prevented from going to work in the area, an AFP reporter said.
Since Osama’s death early Monday, the compound has drawn the world’s media and hundreds of curious locals.
Dozens of Pakistani youths demonstrated outside the house on Tuesday, mocking America and shouting “Osama is alive!”.
US analysts were scouring documents and computer files seized from Osama’s hideout for evidence after top counter-terrorism official John Brennan said it was “inconceivable” he did not enjoy some kind of support network in Pakistan.
For a decade, Islamabad has been America’s wary Afghan war ally, despite widespread public opposition and militant bomb attacks across the country that have killed several thousand people.
But Pakistan has never been fully trusted by either Kabul or Washington. It stands accused of fostering the Afghan Taliban, and before that extremists such as Osama who took up arms against Afghanistan’s 1980s Soviet occupiers.
Pakistani intelligence officials said the nation’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency had no idea Osama was holed up in Abbottabad, despite searching the compound in 2003 while it was still under construction.
With Pakistan’s main Taliban faction and jihadist websites vowing vengeance for Osama, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said yesterday that the threat of reprisal attacks was real.
“Threats are everywhere and we can indeed fear that France will, like the United States and other friendly countries, be the target of reprisals and desire for vengeance,” Gueant said on RTL radio.
The Afghan Taliban — whose refusal to hand over Osama sparked a decade of war after 9/11 — said late Tuesday that the United States had “not provided convincing documents” to prove that he was dead so it was premature to comment.
US officials say DNA tests have proven conclusively that the man shot above the eye was indeed the al-Qaeda leader who boasted about the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the Sept 11 attacks. But they are also mulling whether to release a photo as proof.
“It is fair to say it is a gruesome photograph … it could be inflammatory,” Carney said.
“We are reviewing the situation. “There was concern that Osama would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted,” the White House spokesman added.
In addition to the Osama family, two other families resided in the Abbottabad villa: one on the first floor of the main residence and another in a second building.
Carney noted that two al- Qaeda couriers and a woman were killed on the first floor of the building, while Osama and his family were found on the second and third floor.
The fifth person killed in the raid was believed to be one of the al-Qaeda leader’s sons. After the firefight, other residents of the compound including children were moved to a safe location as the US team detonated a damaged helicopter before leaving for the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea.
The United States says Osama received Muslim rites before his body was “eased” into the sea on Monday so no one could turn his grave into a shrine. Muslim leaders have condemned the sea burial.
Osama’s number two was Egyptian-born Ayman al- Zawahiri, considered by many terrorism analysts to be the real mastermind of the global extremist franchise.
The CIA’s Panetta said that whoever replaces Osama atop al-Qaeda, “he will be number one on our list.” — AFP