Washington, May 18: The American soldiers who killed Osama bin Laden found his two guns only after he was dead, as they were photographing his body, according to a detailed new account of the al-Qaida leader's final moments.
The Associated Press revelation will add further fuel for critics who say US forces acted illegally in killing the unarmed Saudi fugitive. The Obama administration insists the shooting was lawful.
The AP account, based on interviews with senior US officials, resolves some remaining mysteries about the size and sequencing of the dramatic US Navy Seal raid that ended the world's largest manhunt on May 2.
But it also throws up questions about how Pakistan's air defence systems failed to stop the American forces entering or leaving.
The US raiding party slipped into Pakistan on five helicopters – two stealth Black Hawks carrying 23 Navy Seals, an interpreter and a sniffer dog named Cairo, and three Chinooks carrying 24 backup soldiers that landed in a remote mountain area north of Abbottabad.
The Black Hawks that swooped on Bin Laden's compound were equipped with special technology to muffle the tail rotor and engine noise. Some experts have speculated it was also equipped with a special skin to fool radar.
The soldiers planned to swoop on Bin Laden's house from three sides: sliding down ropes onto the roof, the compound and outside the wall.
But the first Black Hawk swayed erratically as it hovered over the compound owing to higher than expected temperatures and crashed against a wall, irreparably damaging its tail.
The pilot ditched the plane in Bin Laden's yard and the entire raiding party entered from the ground floor, using small explosives to blow their way through walls and doors.
The Americans found "barriers" at each stair landing of the three-storey building, encountered fire once and killed three men and one woman. The account did not specify how many of the dead were armed.
After 15 minutes the Seals, passing huddles of frightened children, reached the top floor where they found Bin Laden at the end of the hallway.
They said they recognised him "immediately". Bin Laden ducked into a room, followed quickly by three Seals.
The first soldier pushed aside two women who tried to protect Bin Laden, apparently fearing they were wearing suicide vests, while the second opened fire on the al-Qaida leader, hitting him in the head and chest.
Moments later, as the Americans photographed his body, they found an AK-47 rifle and a Makarov pistol on a shelf beside the door they had just entered. Bin Laden had not touched the weapons, reports AP.
Just over 20 minutes later a Chinook helicopter arrived to collect Bin Laden's body, a trove of computer disks, and the soldiers whose helicopter had crashed, now destroyed except for the rear rotor and tail.
Controversy over the manner of Bin Laden's death has dogged the White House since 2 May, especially after early claims that Bin Laden had been armed and used one of his wives as a human shield proved to be false.
The only witnesses who could contradict the American account are Bin Laden's three wives and children, who are currently in Pakistani custody.
After much pressure from Washington, US officials were allowed to briefly speak with them last week.
The women reportedly refused to answer questions and Pakistan says they will be repatriated to their native Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is not clear when this will happen.
The job was given to a SEAL Team 6 unit, just back from Afghanistan, one official said. This elite branch of SEALs had been hunting bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan since 2001.
Five aircraft flew from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, with three school-bus-size Chinook helicopters landing in a deserted area roughly two-thirds of the way to bin Laden's compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, two of the officials explained.
Aboard two Black Hawk helicopters were 23 SEALs, an interpreter and a tracking dog named Cairo. Nineteen SEALs would enter the compound, and three of them would find bin Laden, one official said, providing the exact numbers for the first time. Aboard the Chinooks were two dozen more SEALs, as backup.