WASHINGTON/ABBOTTABAD, (Reuters) – U.S. officials sought to keep a lid on growing scepticism over Washington’s version of events around Osama bin Laden’s death, insisting the al Qaeda leader was killed during a firefight in the compound in Pakistan where he was hiding.
The White House has cited the “fog of war” as a reason for initial misinformation on whether bin Laden — who was shot in the head — was armed when U.S. Navy Seals raided his compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad early on Monday.
Citing U.S. officials, NBC reported on Wednesday that four of the five people killed in the operation, including bin Laden, were unarmed and never fired a shot — an account that differs from the administration’s original assertions the commandos engaged in a prolonged firefight.
The New York Times quoted administration officials as saying the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the start of the raid when bin Laden’s courier fired from a guesthouse adjacent to the building where the al Qaeda leader was holed up.
U.S. President Barack Obama resisted pressure from aides to release photographs of bin Laden’s body, saying the images could incite violence and be used by militants as a propaganda tool.
“I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk,” Obama told the CBS programme “60 Minutes.”
“There’s no doubt that bin Laden is dead,” Obama added. “And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
Photographs acquired by Reuters and taken about an hour after the assault show three dead men — not including bin Laden — lying in pools of blood. No weapons could be seen in the closely cropped images.
The photos, taken by a Pakistani security official who was in the compound after the raid, show two men dressed in traditional Pakistani garb and one in a T-shirt, blood streaming from their ears, noses and mouths.
“I know for a fact that shots were exchanged during this operation,” said one Pentagon official.
Attorney General Eric Holder, dismissing suggestions that killing the unarmed bin Laden was illegal, said the U.S. commandos who raided his hide-out had acted in national self-defence.
U.S. Representative Adam Smith, speaking to reporters after a briefing by senior intelligence and defence officials, said the U.S. assault team did come under fire.
“They came in at night. It was dark. There were people moving around. They were fired at by, I think more than one person,” Smith said. “There were weapons in the area. It was a fast-moving situation in which they felt threatened and they responded accordingly.”
DEBATE OVER PHOTOS, BURIAL
U.S. acknowledgment that bin Laden was unarmed when shot dead had raised accusations, especially in Europe but also the Middle East, that Washington had breached international law.
There has been little questioning of the operation in the United States, where bin Laden’s killing was greeted with street celebrations. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed the killing had boosted Obama’s image, improving Americans’ views of his leadership and efforts to fight terrorism.
Some Muslim leaders have expressed more concern about the nature of his burial at sea from a U.S. carrier.
Though U.S. officials say the correct Islamic rites were followed, several religious leaders said it was against Islamic practice to bury at sea someone killed on land.
There has been no sign of mass protests or violent reaction on the streets in Muslim countries, including Pakistan.
However, a major Islamist political party in Pakistan called for mass protests on Friday against what it called a violation of the country’s sovereignty after the U.S. raid.
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) also urged the government to withdraw its support for the U.S. war on militancy.
“We have appealed to everyone to hold peaceful demonstrations on Friday on a very large scale,” JI chief Syed Munawar Hasan told Reuters.
Attorney General Holder said bin Laden was a legitimate military target and had made no attempt to surrender to the American forces who stormed his fortified compound near Islamabad and shot him in the head.
“It was justified as an act of national self-defence,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing bin Laden’s admission of being involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
He said a trove of information seized from the compound would likely lead to more names being added to U.S. terrorism watch-lists.
PAKISTAN FACES NATIONAL EMBARRASSMENT
Pakistan, for its part, faces national embarrassment, a leading Islamabad newspaper said, in explaining how the world’s most-wanted man was able to live for years in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, just north of the capital.
The Dawn newspaper compared the latest humiliation with the admission in 2004 that one of the country’s top scientists, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had sold its nuclear secrets.
Pakistan has welcomed bin Laden’s death, but expressed deep concerns about the raid, which it called an “unauthorised unilateral action”.
The country has blamed worldwide intelligence lapses for a failure to detect bin Laden. But Washington is investigating whether its ally had sheltered the al Qaeda leader, which Islamabad vehemently denies.
“There is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone,” Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told reporters in Paris.
In a sign of the potential for the issue to further strain relations, U.S. lawmakers are debating whether they should attach more strings to the billions of dollars in aid they give Pakistan, or cut off Islamabad.
Some lawmakers are demanding a halt to the aid after the al Qaeda leader was found on Pakistani soil, but others say Washington needs Pakistan as a partner to fight terrorism and in its war in Afghanistan.