South Asia

Bin Laden raid: US team 'ready to fight way out'

Osama Bin Laden (TV still)
Image caption Bin Laden reportedly lived undetected in the Abbottabad compound for years

President Barack Obama insisted that the team to hunt down Osama Bin Laden be large enough to fight its way out in case it met resistance from Pakistani forces, the New York Times reports.

The size of the assault team was expanded days before the operation, unnamed military and administration officials quoted by the paper say.

Pakistan has begun an investigation into how Bin Laden lived undetected.

But relations with the US have been severely strained by the raid.

US President Barack Obama had previously urged Pakistan to investigate how the al-Qaeda leader could live in the garrison city of Abbottabad undetected and to find out if any officials knew of his whereabouts.

But in a statement to parliament on Monday announcing the inquiry, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insisted that allegations of Pakistani complicity and incompetence were "absurd".

He said that Pakistan was "determined" to examine the failures to detect Bin Laden and he mounted a robust defence of Pakistan's record in fighting terrorism.

He also added that the US raid was "a violation of sovereignty".

The BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad says that although there have always been questions over the level of Pakistan's commitment to demobilise the Taliban and certain elements of al-Qaeda, the raid on 2 May is the first clear proof of the Americans giving up hope that the Pakistanis would really ever deliver.

But the UK's Guardian newspaper reported that a deal struck between former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and former US President George W Bush in 2001, paved the way for the US to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan if they knew of Bin Laden's whereabouts.

The paper quotes serving and retired Pakistani and US officials as saying that under the terms of the arrangement Pakistan would "vociferously protest the incursion" after it took place.

'Return fire'

But the latest details of the operation reveal the extent to which the US was prepared to go in order to capture or kill the al-Qaeda leader.

"Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorised to do it," one senior Obama administration official is quoted by the New York Times as saying.

In the original plan, two helicopters were going to stay on the Afghan side of the border to be called upon for assistance should the need arise. They would have been about 90 minutes away from the Bin Laden compound.

But, the paper reports, just 10 days before the raid President Obama reviewed the operational plans and the decision was taken to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops, which followed the aircraft carrying the assault team.

"Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out of a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the president did not want to leave anything to chance," the New York Times quoted one unnamed senior administration official as saying.

"He wanted extra forces if they were necessary."

Interrogators on standby

US forces had been instructed to avoid engaging with Pakistani forces and if a confrontation appeared imminent, there were plans for senior US officials to call Pakistani counterparts to avert a clash, senior administration officials are quoted as saying

But the size of the US force was increased when the president expressed his concern that this was not enough to protect those on the ground, the paper reports.

Other details that emerged about the operation include:

  • Two specialist teams were on standby, probably on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea: one to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second team of lawyers, interrogators and translators if he was taken alive
  • One of the back-up helicopter teams was actually used when one of the first team's helicopters was damaged
  • US surveillance aircraft were watching and listening to how Pakistan's security forces responded to the raid to determine how long the team could safely remain on the ground

Correspondents say that Pakistan plays a crucial role in America's war efforts in Afghanistan, and too much public pressure on Pakistan could jeopardise the relationship.

And despite strained relations, Pakistan's prime minister also reiterated that Washington remained a key ally of Islamabad, in Monday's speech to parliament.

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