ABBOTTABAD: 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 US 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, nine and a half years after he masterminded the Sept. 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 metres from the compound.
“Soon after the blast, we saw military vehicles rushing to the site.”
Pakistani soldiers stopped reporters approaching the compound, which was surrounded by a fabric or canvas screen.
A helicopter covered by a tarpaulin sat in a nearby field, guarded by Pakistani soldiers. US officials earlier said a US helicopter was lost due to a mechanical problem during the operation but that its crew safely evacuated.
Bin Laden's residence, called a mansion by US officials, stood fourth in a row of about a dozen houses. A satellite dish was perched on the roof of the house, which was surrounded by high walls.
Television pictures from inside the house showed blood stains smeared across a floor next to a bed.
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 towards 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.”
US officials in Washington said a small US 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.
US officials said security measures at the compound included outer walls up to 5.5 metres (18 feet) tall topped with barbed wire and internal walls that sectioned off different parts of the compound.
Residents said they were astounded to learn bin Laden had been in their midst. One neighbour 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 neighbour, Zahoor Ahmed.
“It's hard to believe bin Laden was there. We never saw any extraordinary movements,” said another neighbour, 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 realising it was a raid on bin Laden.
When he learnt who had been killed, he tweeted: “Uh oh, there goes the neighbourhood.” 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.