US forces in Pakistan killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a compound near Islamabad, president Barack Obama announced on TV late on Sunday (photo, from nytimes.com).
The ground operation was based on US intelligence, for which the first lead emerged last August.
After what Mr Obama described as “a firelight”, US forces took possession of the body of the man who was top of the US “most wanted” list.
Despite a $25m bounty on his head, bin Laden evaded being captured for almost a decade.
Osama bin Laden was believed to have ordered the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
US officials said that DNA tests later confirmed bin Laden’s death.
After a Muslim funeral he was buried at sea on board an aircraft carrier in order to conform with Islamic practice of a burial within 24 hours, Pentagon officials said. It also prevents any grave becoming a sanctuary.
US media reports said that the body was buried at sea to conform with Islamic practice of a burial within 24 hours and to prevent any grave becoming a shrine.
President Obama said it was “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda”.
But CIA new director Leon Panetta said al-Qaeda would “almost certainly” try to avenge the death of its leader, therefore all US embassies around the world were put on alert.
According to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton the operation sent a signal to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan : “You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us, but you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”
She also said that there was “no better rebuke to al-Qaeda and its heinous ideology” than the peaceful uprisings across the Arab world.
Briefed on a possible lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts, president Obama authorized the operation last week because he ascertained that there was enough intelligence to take action.
“It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground,” Mr Obama said.
US forces, seemingly from the elite Navy Seal Team Six, undertook the operation on Sunday in Abbottabad, 100km (62 miles) north-east of Islamabad. (map, from bbcimg.co.uk)
A senior US official said the attack was conducted in about 40 minutes by a small US team.
Three other men – one of bin Laden’s sons and two couriers – were killed in the raid, the official added. He also said that one woman was killed when she was used as “a shield” and that two other women were injured.
According to US officials bin Laden was shot in the head after resisting.
Mr Obama said “no Americans were harmed”.
Because of a “technical failure”, one helicopter was lost, the team destroyed it before leaving in its other aircraft.
US officials said the size and complexity of the structure in Abbottabad “shocked” because it was surrounded by 4m-6m (12ft-18ft) walls and was eight times larger than other homes in the area.
Even though it had no telephone of internet connection, the house was valued at “a million dollars”.
The residence is located only a few hundred metres from the Pakistan Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point or Sandhurst.
Intelligence had been tracking a “trusted courier” of bin Laden for many years, said the US official. His identity was discovered four years ago, and two years ago they found his area of operation. Last August they discovered his residence in Abbottabad, which triggered the start of the mission.
No intelligence had been shared with any country, including Pakistan, ahead of the raid, said another senior US official, who added that “only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance.”
According to the senior US official the “the loss of bin Laden puts the group on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse”, because Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s probable successor, is “far less charismatic and not as well respected within the organisation”, according to reports from captured al-Qaeda operatives.
But Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy told the BBC that “the death of bin Laden will strike at the morale of the global jihad, but is unlikely to end it”, because the foundation of radical Islam, issues that enabled al-Qaeda to recruit disaffected young Muslims to its cause, is still unaddressed, for the most part.
The news of bin Laden’s death was welcomed by world leaders.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai said Bin Laden had “paid for his actions”, while Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani called the killing a “great victory” before adding that he “didn’t know the details” of the US operation.
In a statement former US president George W. Bush said the news was a “momentous achievement”. He added : “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
However other criticised the death of al-Qaeda’s leader. The killing of “a Muslim and Arabic warrior” was condemned in Gaza, governed by Hamas, by prime minister Ismail Haniya.
And a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban threatened revenge attacks against the “American and Pakistani governments and their security forces”.
Born in a wealthy Saudi construction family, bin Laden grew up in a privileged world. However he joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan soon after the Soviets invaded the country. There Bin Laden fought with his Arab followers, a group that later formed the nucleus for al-Qaeda.
In 1998, Bin Laden declared war on America. He is widely believed to have been behind the bombings of US embassies in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, besides the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11.