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Obama told US forces to 'return fire if necessary' against Pakistani troops

By David Usborne

US president Barack Obama personally intervened in the planning of the strike against Osama bin Laden to ensure that the team chosen to execute the mission would be ready to fight its way out of a confrontation with the Pakistani military, American officials have said.

Revealing still more of the details of the 2 May operation, officials in Washington said Mr Obama expressed concern to his own commanders 10 days before the raid about the possibility of Pakistan scrambling troops of its own to counter the American incursion.

He indicated that while everything should be done to avoid a clash with the Pakistanis, his forces should be ready to engage them if necessary.

"Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible," a senior official told The New York Times. "But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorised to do it."

The revelations underscore how far the US was prepared to go in the quest to bag Bin Laden, even to the point of exchanging fire with a country that is supposedly one of its closest allies. That no clash occurred is an indication of how much worse US-Pakistan relations could have become.

But the disclosures may further stoke Pakistani anger over the raid. In a speech to the Pakistani parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared that any fresh incursions by the US would meet a strong response.

"Let no one draw any wrong conclusions," he said, displaying his government's displeasure.

"Any attack against Pakistan's strategic assets, whether overt or covert, will find a matching response."

Soothing that fury will be a top task of Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA, who, according to US sources, is expected to speak in the coming days with his counterpart in Islamabad, Lt-Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, who leads Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. The goal of their discussion will be "to discuss the way forward in the common fight against al-Qa'ida," an official said.

The Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry, is also scheduled to visit Pakistan shortly, similarly to seek ways to ease tensions between the countries.

The US is trying to calm Pakistani indignation sufficiently enough for its interrogators to gain access to some of the other occupants of Bin Laden's compound. The Pakistanis took them into custody after the Americans flew out.

In particular, US officials are eager to interview the three women who were there with Bin Laden in the hope of learning more about their late husband's terror network.

As a result of Mr Obama's request, the planners of the raid decided to send two more helicopters loaded with additional troops as support in the event of any Pakistani military reaction, officials said. A back-up helicopter was deployed directly to the scene when one of the original two aircraft involved was disabled after a hard landing.

"Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out of a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the President did not want to leave anything to chance," an administration official told The New York Times. "He wanted extra forces if they were necessary." Even if some details of the operation remain classified, each new small disclosure attracts popular fascination, especially in the US and Pakistan.

Had the Pakistani military scrambled troops in response, the chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was at the ready to pick up the phone to plead with his counterparts in Islamabad to stand down.

And it was not just Navy Seals who were involved. Also deployed to the region was a team of US interrogators primed to begin squeezing Bin Laden for information on al-Qa'ida in the event of the terrorist leader being captured alive. In that circumstance, the plan was to take him directly to a US Navy vessel in the region to ensure there were no squabbles over jurisdiction with any governments.

Reports that a secret deal giving the US the green light to do whatever it would take to snare Bin Laden was struck years ago between Washington and the former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, were denied yesterday by the latter's office.

"No such agreement had been signed during his tenure," a spokesman said.

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