WASHINGTON — Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot dead by US special forces, but he tried to resist and there was a "volatile firefight," the White House said Tuesday.
The revelation, likely to stoke anger in parts of the Muslim world, came from President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney as he provided the most detailed account yet of the Sunday night raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
"In the room with bin Laden, a women -- bin Laden?s wife -- rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed," Carney said.
The elite Navy SEALs came in on two helicopters.
"The team methodically cleared the compound moving from room to room in an operation lasting nearly 40 minutes," Carney said.
After media reports quoting officials describing it as a "kill operation," the White House spokesman was pressed hard to explain the apparent contradiction that bin Laden was unarmed but also resisted.
"We were prepared to capture him if that was possible," Carney said, without providing a clear explanation. "We expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance."
When a journalist insisted: "He wasn't armed," Carney replied: "But there were many other people who were armed in the compound. There was a firefight."
"But not in that room," the journalist pressed.
"It was a highly volatile firefight. I'll point you to the department of defense for more details about it," Carney said.
In addition to the bin Laden family, two other families resided in the compound: one on the first floor of the bin Laden building and another in a second building,
"Of the 22 or so people in the room, 17 or so of them were noncombatants," Carney said.
The SEALs split into two: one team entering the bin Laden house on the first floor and working its way up to the third floor where the Al-Qaeda chief was, while the other team cleared the second building.
"On the first floor of bin Laden?s building, two Al-Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in cross-fire," Carney said.
"Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor of the building. There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted."
After the firefight, the "non-combatants were moved to a safe location as the damaged helicopter was detonated," Carney said. "The team departed the scene via helicopter to the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea."
The White House spokesman also described the sea burial of bin Laden, which has been criticized as going against Islamic tradition by certain Muslim leaders.
"Aboard the USS Carl Vinson, the burial of bin Laden was done in conformance with Islamic precepts and practices," he said. "The deceased's body was washed and then placed in a white sheet.
"The body was placed in a weighted bag; a military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker," he continued.
"After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, and the deceased body eased into the sea."