Under powerful floodlights and surrounded by rings of soldiers and police, heavy machines have begun to demolish the three-story compound in northeastern Pakistan where Osama bin Laden lived for years and was killed by US commandos in May last year.
Each blow helped eliminate a concrete reminder of the painful and embarrassing chapter in Pakistan’s history that the al--Qaeda chief’s discovery and death in a town not far from the nation’s capital represented.
Pakistan was outraged by the covert US raid in Abbottabad because it was not told about it beforehand — a decision the US explained was driven by concerns that someone in the government might tip off bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s death was cheered across the globe, but many Pakistanis were angry that the US violated its territory and that its troops were powerless to stop US soldiers from attacking a compound located next to the country’s equivalent of West Point, the elite US military academy.
Just as US Navy SEALs waited for the cover of darkness to descend on bin Laden’s compound by helicopter from neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities held off on tearing it down on Saturday until the sun had set, local residents said.
They brought in at least three machines equipped with powerful crane-like arms during the afternoon and also set up floodlights that allowed them to begin work at night, said residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being harassed by the government.
A large police presence established an outer cordon around the compound to keep spectators and journalists away. A ring of soldiers set up an inner cordon and warmed themselves against the winter chill by lighting a fire.
The bulldozers broke through tall outer boundary walls that ringed a courtyard where one of the US helicopters crashed during the operation to kill bin Laden. They then began to tear down the compound itself.
A Pakistani intelligence official confirmed that the demolition was in progress, but declined to say why the government chose to do it. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The government did not give advance warning that it planned to tear down the compound.
Many US officials expressed disbelief that bin Laden could have lived in Abbottabad for about six years without the Pakistani government knowing, but the US has so far failed to find any evidence that senior Pakistani officials knew of the al-Qaeda chief’s whereabouts.
The raid, which lasted about 40 minutes, was a serious blow to the already troubled US-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan responded by kicking out more than 100 US troops training Pakistanis in counterterrorism operations and reduced the level of intelligence cooperation.
Some members of the US -Congress called on the US to cut the billions of dollars of military and civilian aid to Pakistan unless Islamabad explained bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and boosted cooperation on the Afghan war. The aid has continued, although at a lower level.
Ties between the US and Pakistan have also been strained by US drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the country’s northwest tribal region near the Afghan border.