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Pakistan demolishes bin Laden compound

NBC's Lester Holt reports.

Updated at 1:26 p.m. ET: ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan -- Crews on Saturday began demolishing the compound where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in May, eliminating a concrete reminder of the painful and embarrassing chapter in the country's history. 

Two residents told The Associated Press the government brought in three mechanized backhoes Saturday afternoon and began destroying the tall outer walls of the three-story compound after sunset. They set up floodlights so they could work after dark.

The residents spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being harassed by government authorities.


A senior Pakistani government official later told NBC News the compound was "80 percent demolished."

Future plans for the lot include the construction of "a nice park" -- with green areas and benches -- that will be built "within a month," a senior government official told NBC News.

The demolition team conducted its work under heavy security. A large team of police set up an outer cordon around the compound to keep spectators away, said an Associated Press reporter who managed to get close enough to see the demolition work under way.

Sultan Mehmood / EPA

Workers on Saturday demolish the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

A ring of army soldiers set up an inner cordon and warmed themselves against the winter chill by lighting a bonfire.

The backhoes broke through tall outer boundary walls that ringed a courtyard where one of the U.S. helicopters crashed during the operation to kill the al-Qaida chief. They then began to tear down the compound itself.

Earlier, several Pakistani soldiers arrived in the area and moved heavy machinery near the building, fueling rumors of an imminent demolition, local residents in Bilal town in Abbottabad district told NBC News. 

Some residents said Pakistani security forces and police were already deployed in the area to stop people trying to go toward the compound. But, they said, fresh contingents of troops arrived and cordoned it off from all sides Saturday evening.

One resident said power supply to the city had been suspended and all routes to the area blocked by the security forces.

The compound has been a painful reminder for Pakistan, which was embarrassed by the unilateral U.S. operation that killed bin Laden.

Residents of the normally sleepy town of Abbottabad were divided on what the government should do with the compound in the aftermath of the raid. Some thought it should be destroyed, but others believed it should be turned into a tourist attraction to help the town earn money. There was always the danger, however, that it could also draw al-Qaida supporters.

American officials said they buried bin Laden's body at sea to avoid giving his followers a burial place that could become a makeshift shrine.

Many U.S. officials expressed disbelief that bin Laden could have lived in Abbottabad for around six years without the Pakistani government knowing. But the U.S. has not found any evidence that senior Pakistani officials knew the al-Qaida chief's whereabouts.

The U.S. did not give Pakistan advance warning of the raid, which lasted about 40 minutes, because it was worried someone in the country's military or shadowy intelligence agency would tip off bin Laden.

The operation was a serious blow to the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan responded to the raid by kicking out more than 100 U.S. troops training Pakistanis in counterterrorism operations and reduced the level of intelligence cooperation.

Drone crash
Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have also been strained by American drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country's northwest tribal region near the Afghan border.

A suspected U.S. drone crashed Saturday in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for militants along the border, said Pakistani intelligence officials and local residents.

The unmanned aircraft went down near Mir Ali, one of the main towns in North Waziristan, said the intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The drone caught fire after it hit the ground and was believed to have crashed because of technical problems, they said.

Local resident Nasir Khan said he saw the burning debris from the roof of his home in the Machi Khel area. It was about 500 yards from his house.

Pakistani officials often criticize drone strikes as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the government is widely believed to have supported the covert CIA-run program in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship with the U.S. has deteriorated.

The U.S. refuses to speak openly about the program, but officials have said privately that the strikes have killed senior Taliban and al-Qaida commanders.

The Associated Press and NBC's Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed to this story.

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