Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US helicopter raid on a mansion near the Pakistani capital Islamabad early on Monday, officials said, ending a nearly 10-year worldwide hunt for the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
US officials said bin Laden was found in a million-dollar compound in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, 60 km north of Islamabad. After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden was among several people in the mansion killed. A source familiar with the operation said bin Laden was shot in the head.
"Justice has been done," President Barack Obama declared in a hastily called White House speech announcing the death of the elusive head of the militant Islamic group behind a series of deadly bombings across the world.
Leaders worldwide praised the killing as a dramatic success in the war against al Qaeda, a mood reflected in financial markets. The dollar and stocks rose, while oil and gold fell, on the view bin Laden's death reduced global security risks.
However, many analysts cautioned it was too soon to say his death would mark a turning point in the battle against a highly fractured network of militants.
Jubilant, flag-waving celebrations erupted in Washington and New York after Obama's announcement. It was the biggest national security victory for the president since he took office in early 2009 and could give him a political boost as he seeks re-election in 2012.
Obama may now also find it easier to wind down the nearly decade-old war in Afghanistan, begun after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000.
But the operation could complicate relations with Pakistan, a key US ally in the battle against militancy and the war in Afghanistan. Those ties have already been frayed over US drone strikes in the west of the country and the six-week imprisonment of a CIA contractor earlier this year.
A US official said Pakistani authorities were told the details of the raid after it had taken place.
The revelation bin Laden was living in style will also put Pakistani officials under pressure to explain how he could have been right under their noses. Residents in Abbottabad said a Pakistani military training academy is near the compound."For some time there will be a lot of tension between Washington and Islamabad because bin Laden seems to have been living here close to Islamabad," said Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani security analyst.
US officials said American forces were led to the fortress-like three-story building in Abbottabad after more than four years tracking one of bin Laden's most trusted couriers, whom US officials said was identified by men captured after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with or protected by bin Laden," a senior administration official said in a briefing for reporters in Washington.
Bin Laden was finally found after authorities discovered in August 2010 that the courier lived with his brother and their families in an unusual and high-security building in Pakistan, officials said.
"When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound," a senior administration official said."The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harbored a high-value terrorist target. The experts who worked this issue for years assessed that there was a strong probability that the terrorist who was hiding there was Osama bin Laden," another administration official said.
Bin Laden and three adult men, including a son of bin Laden, were killed along with a woman who was used as a shield by a male combatant, officials said.
The New York Times said bin Laden's body was taken to Afghanistan and then buried at sea.
Resident woken by blasts, gunfire
A US helicopter was lost due to a mechanical problem and its crew and assault force safely evacuated, officials said. No Americans were harmed in the operation, Obama said.
"After midnight, a large number of commandos encircled the compound. Three helicopters were hovering overhead," said Nasir Khan, a resident of the town.
"All of a sudden there was firing towards the helicopters from the ground. There was intense firing and then I saw one of the helicopters crash," said Khan, who had watched the dramatic scene unfold from his rooftop.
Authorities said bin Laden's hideaway, built in 2005, was about eight times larger than other homes in the area. It had security features including 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire, internal walls for extra privacy, and access controlled through two security gates.
It had no telephone or Internet connection.
"It is not a surprise that bin Laden was captured in an urban heartland," said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation.
"Many of al-Qaeda's senior leaders have been captured in Pakistani cities. It had become a myth that the al Qaeda leadership were hiding in caves in the tribal areas."
Bin Laden's death triggered a travel alert for Americans worldwide, the US State Department said, warning of the potential for anti-American violence.
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron urged Britons to remain vigilant.
"Of course, it does not mark the end of the threat we face from extremist terror. Indeed, we will have to be particularly vigilant in the weeks ahead. But it is, I believe, a massive step forward," Cameron said.
Thousands of people gathered outside the White House, waving American flags, cheering and chanting "USA, USA, USA." Car drivers blew their horns in celebration and people streamed to Lafayette Park across from the street, as police vehicles with their lights flashing stood vigil.
Similar celebrations erupted at New York's Ground Zero, site of the World Trade Center twin towers felled by hijacked airplanes on Sept. 11.
"I never figured I'd be excited about someone's death. It's been a long time coming," firefighter Michael Carroll, 27, whose firefighter father died in the Sept. 11 attacks, said in New York. "It's finally here. ... it feels good."
A market perception that the death of bin Laden reduced the security risks facing the United States lifted the dollar from a three-year low and raised stock index futures.US crude oil prices also fell. "Current oil prices are regarded by most analysts as carrying significant risk premium at current levels and good news on the geopolitical front has the potential to move prices back below $100," said Ric Spooner, chief analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney.
Some analysts said the market impact would be short lived.
Many Americans had given up hope of finding bin Laden after he vanished in the mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001.
Intelligence that originated last August provided the clues that eventually led to bin Laden's trail, the president said. A U.S. official said Obama gave the final order to pursue the operation on Friday.
"The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of men, women and children," Obama said.
Former President George W. Bush, who had vowed to bring bin Laden to justice "dead or alive", called the operation a "momentous achievement" after Obama called him with the news.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body blow" to al Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular revolutions in the Arab world.
Other experts said the killing would deal a big psychological blow to al Qaeda but may have little practical impact on an increasingly decentralised group that has operated tactically without him for years.
Al Qaeda has been hurt ideologically by uprisings in the Arab world by ordinary people seeking democracy and human rights -- notions anathema to bin Laden, who once said democracy was akin to idolatry as it placed man's desires above God's.
"It changes little in terms of on-the-ground realities -- by the time of his death bin Laden was not delivering operational or tactical orders to the numerous al Qaeda affiliates across the world," said Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Statements of appreciation poured in from both sides of Washington's political divide. Republican Senator John McCain declared, "I am overjoyed that we finally got the world's top terrorist."India said the killing underlined its concern that "terrorists belonging to different organisations find sanctuary in Pakistan," India's home ministry said in New Delhi.
A US official said that the retrieval of the body may help convince any doubters that bin Laden is really dead.
The United States is conducting DNA testing on bin Laden and used facial recognition techniques to help identify him, the official said.
The United States is ensuring that bin Laden's body is being handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition, a US official said.
Bin Laden had been hunted since he eluded U.S. soldiers and Afghan militia forces in a large-scale assault on the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 2001.
The trail quickly went cold after he disappeared and many intelligence officials believed he had been hiding in Pakistan.
While in hiding, bin Laden had taunted the West and advocated his militant Islamist views in videotapes spirited from his hideaway.
Besides Sept. 11, Washington has also linked bin Laden to a string of attacks -- including the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 bombing of the warship USS Cole in Yemen.