WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States said it expects Pakistan will "soon" allow it to question three women apprehended during the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden, despite Islamabad's fury over the operation.
The apparent concession came as further details emerged about the dramatic May 2 assault in which the Al-Qaeda kingpin was shot dead by US forces not far from Islamabad, eliminating the architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Bin Laden's Yemeni wife, who was shot in the leg during the raid, has told Pakistani investigators that they had lived in the compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad for five years.
With the pivotal US-Pakistan relationship under severe strain, the White House had called on Islamabad to help counter growing mistrust by granting American investigators access to the three women.
"The United States expects to be granted access soon," the US official said, without providing more details. Senior Pakistani officials were either unreachable on Tuesday or refused to comment on the claim.
The three women, who are believed to be wives of bin Laden, have been in Pakistani custody since the assault along with several children.
The newspaper said President Barack Obama raised the prospect of a clash 10 days before the operation, resulting in two extra helicopters being deployed to protect the assault team.
Citing a senior Obama administration official, it said the SEALs would have been allowed to fight back if engaged by hostile local police officers or soldiers.
"Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorized to do it," the official said.
On Monday, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani dismissed as "absurd" accusations that complicity or incompetence had allowed bin Laden to hide out for years in the sizeable compound two hours' drive from Islamabad.
He vowed a full investigation into the security and intelligence lapses -- to be overseen by a Pakistani general -- but also hit out at Washington's decision to strike on its own deep inside Pakistan.
Pakistan is a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism centered in neighboring Afghanistan. But tense relations have been stretched even further by the discovery of bin Laden living less than a mile from a military academy.
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on Tuesday that Pakistan granted US forces permission almost a decade ago to conduct a unilateral raid if Washington knew where bin Laden was hiding.
Under the deal -- between then military leader General Pervez Musharraf and president George W. Bush -- both sides agreed that in public at least, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion after it happened.
Washington emphatically refused on Monday to say sorry for the raid which eliminated the world's most wanted man, blamed for masterminding the 9/11 attacks on the United States in which almost 3,000 people were killed.
"We obviously take the statements and concerns of the Pakistani government seriously, but we also do not apologize for the action that we took, that this president took," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
There is considerable US suspicion that there must have been some kind of collusion to enable the Al-Qaeda leader to live undetected in Abbottabad.
But Gilani told parliament he had "full confidence in the high command of the Pakistan Armed Forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)."
Obama on Sunday said bin Laden must have had some kind of "support network."
And the chairwoman of the US Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, charged on Monday that bin Laden must have had help to evade capture and live in Pakistan.
"I just don't believe it was done without some form of complicity," Feinstein said, describing Islamabad's ties with Washington as "increasingly problematic."
Outraged US lawmakers have voiced suspicion that elements of Pakistan's ISI or military must have been in the know, and are demanding that billions of dollars in US aid be suspended.
Gilani sought to deflect the criticism, blaming "all intelligence agencies of the world" for the failure to locate bin Laden in a decade-long manhunt, and declaring: "Pakistan is not the birthplace of Al-Qaeda."
The highly influential military establishment is perceived to be Pakistan's strongest institution but the debacle has left it red-faced.
It has hit back at criticism, demanding that the United States cut its troop presence in the country to a "minimum" and threatening to review cooperation if another unilateral raid is conducted.
Gilani also insisted Pakistan reserves the right to "retaliate with full force," although he stopped short of spelling what, if anything, would be done if the US staged another high-profile anti-terror raid.
A US official, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the CIA had no plans to withdraw its top spy from Islamabad after his identity was allegedly divulged in a Pakistani newspaper.