ISLAMABAD — Pakistani authorities late Saturday began demolishing the house where Osama bin Laden had lived in a town in the north of the country, local residents said, in a move that will remove the physical symbol of the al Qaida leader's presence in the country.
The destruction of the home in Abbottabad, which began suddenly after darkness fell Saturday night, could help Pakistan bury the bin Laden issue, which caused the country acute embarrassment after a U.S. special forces squad found and killed him at the site in May 2011.
Many questions remain unanswered about the ability of bin Laden to live in the prominent house, close to military installations, for five years undetected. The large three-story house, surrounded by high walls, has become a famous image.
Residents said that heavy machinery, including bulldozing equipment and searchlights, was moved in and the area cordoned off by police. By first light, little could be left.
Kosar Naqvi, a local reporter, said that the demolition began around 8 p.m. local time.
"They first knocked down the boundary wall and now they are working on the upper story," said Naqvi, who got up to the security cordon.
Bin Laden's three wives, who were taken into custody by Pakistani forces after the American raiding party left the scene last May, have told investigators that they lived in the Abbottabad house for five years, with each wife occupying a different floor of the home. Bin Laden himself was found on the third floor, where he was with his youngest wife, Amal, on the night of May 2, 2011, when the U.S. Navy SEALs burst in.
The house, which was built specially for him in 2004, had 18-foot-high walls in places, with the bin Laden family never venturing outside. The al Qaida chief had lived in Abbottobad largely detached from the day-to-day running of the terror group, with five children from Amal, all ages 12 and under, and his adult son Khalid. Four bin Laden grandchildren were also found there — presumed to be Khalid's offspring.
The wives, children and grandchildren remain in Pakistani custody. Khalid was shot and killed by the U.S. special forces squad, which also killed two Pakistani men who were bin Laden's keepers. The SEALs took the al Qaida leader's body away with them from the Abbottabad house.
Pakistan had for years always angrily denied reports that bin Laden was present in the country, and the U.S. operation to kill him also heaped further humiliation on the country by not informing Pakistan prior to the raid. The squad of Navy SEALS managed to move deep into the country by helicopter, found and killed bin Laden and left Pakistani airspace before the country's military found out.
There were fears that the bin Laden compound would turn into a shrine for extremists. So far, no evidence has emerged of any official complicity in his ability to live in Abbottabad, though many suspicions remain. An official Pakistani commission is examining the bin Laden issue. Due to report shortly, it is unclear whether its findings will be made public.
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