ABBOTTABAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden was unarmed when U.S. special forces shot and killed him, the White House said, as it vowed to “get to the bottom” of whether Pakistan helped the al Qaeda leader elude a 10-year manhunt.
Pakistan faced national embarrassment, a leading Islamabad newspaper said, in how to explain that the world’s most-wanted man was able to live for years in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, just north of the capital.
Pakistan has vehemently denied it gave shelter to bin Laden.
The revelation that bin Laden was unarmed appeared to contradict an earlier account from a U.S. security official that the al Qaeda leader “participated” in a firefight with the helicopter-borne American commandos.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday cited the “fog of war” — a phrase suggested by a reporter — as a reason for the initial misinformation.
If this becomes controversial, it could complicate U.S. efforts to mend ties with the Muslim world in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, conflicts sparked by the September 11, 2001 attacks that bin Laden orchestrated.
U.S. officials have released a picture of President Barack Obama and key aides watching video of the assault on the Abbottabad compound, among others images.
But they are wrestling with whether to release photographs of bin Laden’s body which could provide proof of his death but risk offending Muslims.
Bin Laden was shot in the head. “It’s fair to say that it’s a gruesome photograph,” Carney said. “…I’ll be candid. There are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs” of bin Laden.
Pakistan has welcomed bin Laden’s death, but its foreign ministry expressed “deep concerns” about the raid, which it called an “unauthorized unilateral action”.
The CIA said it kept Pakistan out of the loop because it feared bin Laden would be tipped off, highlighting the depth of mistrust between the two supposed allies.
U.S. helicopters carrying the commandos used radar “blind spots” in the hilly terrain along the Afghan border to enter Pakistani airspace undetected in the early hours of Monday.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn compared the latest humiliation to the admission in 2004 that one of the country’s top scientists had sold its nuclear secrets.
“Not since Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed to transferring nuclear technology to Iran and Libya has Pakistan suffered such an embarrassment,” it said.
The streets around bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad remained sealed off on Wednesday, with police and soldiers allowing only residents to pass through.
“It’s a crime but what choice are you left with if I’m not handing over your enemy who is hiding in my house?” said Hussain Khan, a retired government official living nearby, when asked about the apparent violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. “Obviously you will go and get him yourself.”
Carney insisted bin Laden resisted when U.S. forces stormed his compound — although he would not say how.
“There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and, indeed, he resisted,” Carney said. “A woman … bin Laden’s wife, rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, briefing reporters earlier this week, had indicated bin Laden was armed. “He was engaged in a firefight … and whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know,” he said.
The New York Times also quoted officials as saying that the commandos did not know if bin Laden or others were wearing suicide belts.
The strike team opened fire in response to “threatening moves” as they reached the third-floor room where they found bin Laden, CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an interview with PBS television.
“The authority here was to kill bin Laden,” he said. “And obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.”
Indeed, a U.S. security official had told Reuters on Monday bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had surrendered, but otherwise the raid was a “kill operation”.
U.S. officials have also backtracked on an earlier statement that bin Laden’s wife had been used as a human shield.
While many world leaders applauded the U.S. operation, there were concerns in parts of Europe that the United States was wrong to act as policeman, judge and executioner.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the action as lawful on Tuesday, but some in Europe said bin Laden should have been captured and put on trial.
“It was quite clearly a violation of international law,” former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told German TV. “The operation could also have incalculable consequences in the Arab world in light of all the unrest.”
Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent London-based human rights lawyer, said the killing “may well have been a cold-blooded assassination” that risked making bin Laden a martyr.
“It’s not justice. It’s a perversion of the term. Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them,” the Australian-born Robertson told Australian Broadcasting Corp television.
Pakistan has come under intense international scrutiny since bin Laden’s death, with questions on whether its security agencies were too incompetent to catch him or knew all along where he was hiding, and even whether they were complicit.
The compound where bin Laden had been hiding — possibly for as long as five or six years — was close to Pakistan’s military academy in Abbottabad, about 40 miles from Islamabad.
“It would be premature to rule out the possibility that there were some individuals inside of Pakistan, including within the official Pakistani establishment, who might have been aware of this,” Brennan said.
PAKISTAN UNDER PRESSURE
CIA Director Panetta, in an unusually blunt interview with Time magazine, explained why Islamabad was not informed of the raid until all the helicopters carrying the U.S. Navy SEALs — and bin Laden’s body — were out of Pakistani airspace.
“It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission: they might alert the targets,” Panetta said.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari defended his government, which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid, and blamed “baseless speculation” in the U.S. press.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency had been sharing information about the compound with the CIA and other friendly intelligence agencies since 2009 and had continued to do so until mid-April.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, who harbored bin Laden until overthrown in late 2001, challenged the truth of his death, saying Washington had not provided “acceptable evidence to back up their claim” that he had been killed.