ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Residents of the Pakistani town of Abbottabad were jolted from their sleep on Sunday night by the boom of explosions, unaware the hunt for the world’s most wanted man was coming to a bloody end in their sleepy hills.
Helicopter-borne U.S. forces swooped on a compound on the edge of Abbottabad in the middle of the night and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was hiding there, nearly a decade after he masterminded the September 11 attacks. “We rushed to the rooftop and saw flames near that house. We also heard some gunshots,” said Mohammad Idrees, who lives about 400 meters from the compound.
“Soon after the blast, we saw military vehicles rushing to the site.”
Pakistani soldiers stopped reporters approaching the compound, which they had cordoned off with a red canvas screen.
A helicopter covered by a tarpaulin sat in a nearby field. Later, Pakistani soldiers dismantled the aircraft and took it away in pieces on trucks. U.S. officials earlier said a U.S. helicopter was lost due to a mechanical problem during the operation but that its crew safely evacuated.
Bin Laden’s three-storey residence, called a mansion by U.S. officials, stood fourth in a row of about a dozen houses. A satellite dish could be seen in the compound, which itself was surrounded by high walls.
Television pictures from inside the house showed blood stains smeared across a floor next to a large bed. Nearby, a row of medicine was lined up on a shelf and some shirts hung in a cupboard.
Pakistani TV stations also showed a picture purportedly of bin Laden shot in the head, his mouth pulled back in a grimace. Reuters pictures editors determined the image was a fake after discovering a number of inconsistencies in the picture.
Another resident, Nasir Khan, said commandos had encircled the compound as three helicopters hovered overhead.
“All of a sudden there was firing toward the helicopters from the ground,” said Khan, who watched the drama unfold from his roof.
“There was intense firing and then I saw one of the helicopters crash.”
U.S. officials in Washington said a small U.S. team conducted a helicopter raid on the compound in Abbottabad, a military garrison town some 60 km (35 miles) north of the capital Islamabad. After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden and an adult son, one unidentified woman and two men were dead.
U.S. officials said security measures at the compound included outer walls up to 5.5 meters (18 feet) tall topped with barbed wire and internal walls that sectioned off different parts of the compound.
Fields sprouting green shoots stretched out in front of the compound while hills rose up behind it.
Residents said they were astounded to learn bin Laden had been in their midst. One neighbor said an old man had been living in the compound for the past 10 years.
“He never mixed much, he kept a low profile,” said the neighbor, Zahoor Ahmed.
“It’s hard to believe bin Laden was there. We never saw any extraordinary movements,” said another neighbor, Adress Ahmed.
Abbottabad has long been a cool, leafy retreat from the heat of the Pakistan plains.
It was founded by a British army officer, James Abbott, in the mid-nineteenth century as the British were pushing the bounds of their Indian empire into the northwestern hills inhabited by Pashtun tribes.
Today, the town is home to a Pakistani military academy and its surrounding hills are dotted with summer homes.
Sohaib Athar, whose online profile says he is an IT consultant taking a break from the rat race, sent out a stream of live updates on Twitter about the movement of helicopters and blasts without realizing it was a raid on bin Laden.
When he learnt who had been killed, he tweeted: “Uh oh, there goes the neighborhood.”
But it might take more to convince many people that bin Laden is dead.
One soldier on patrol near the compound said there had been talk before of bin Laden’s death, only for it to be proven untrue.
“It’s not clear if he was killed or not,” the soldier said.
Writing by Robert Birsel, Editing by Dean Yates