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Omar Khadr is seen in this undated family portrait.HO/Reuters

Omar Khadr's 13-year incarceration began with a four-hour firefight and a split-second decision by U.S. soldiers to save the teenager's life.

Nearly 11 months had passed since two jetliners flew into the World Trade Center, and U.S. forces were sweeping southeastern Afghanistan for lingering pockets of al-Qaeda fighters hiding among the hills bordering Pakistan.

On the morning of July 27, 2002, a team of Special Forces and Afghan militiamen set out for a house identified by villagers as an al-Qaeda compound. Just as the team arrived at the home, they got word that a monitored satellite phone had been detected a few hundred metres away.

Sergeant Layne Morris and four other soldiers broke off from the main group, hiked toward the signal and came upon a small hut surrounded by 10-foot mud walls. They called for the occupants to come out. Getting no co-operation, they waited 45 minutes for the rest of the 50-troop team to arrive and surround the compound.

By early afternoon, the team's defensive positions were set and two interpreters were sent toward the front entrance to coax the occupants out.

"When the interpreters got within point-blank range, the guys inside simply popped up from behind a wall and executed the interpreters," the now-retired Mr. Morris told The Globe and Mail. "At that point, the battle was on."

A fusillade of small-arms fire erupted from the compound accompanied by several grenade volleys, wounding several U.S. soldiers, including sergeant Morris.

Their numbers and positioning gave the Americans a distinct strategic advantage, but they decided to wait for reinforcements. Around 50 more GIs arrived within minutes. Among them was a 28-year-old medic, Sergeant Christopher Speer, who took up a defensive position around the compound while an overwhelming combination of U.S. aircraft – A-10 planes, FA-18 fighter-bombers and Apache helicopters – swooped in to reduce the hut to rubble.

"Every time the plane would go over and strafe the compound, somebody inside would try shooting at the plane," Mr. Morris said. "So we had the plane go around again and again until the shooting stopped."

Several hours passed before the smouldering scene fell silent. That's when a Special Forces assault team – Sgt. Speer among them – moved in through a fresh hole in the compound wall. They anticipated it would be a mere body-counting exercise.

As the team picked their way through the debris-strewn compound, small-calibre rounds began snapping around them. The shots were followed up by a grenade arcing over one of the walls and landing around them. At least one of the soldiers managed to outrun the impact, but Sgt. Speer suffered a head wound and died several days later.

When the cloud of dust lifted, one of the soldiers spotted the 15-year-old Mr. Khadr and fired two shots into his back. Nobody had actually witnessed the teen toss the grenade, but the soldiers concluded he'd lobbed it based on his location.

When they moved closer to him and turned him over, they saw two large exit wounds in his chest. Based on the flow of blood, they guessed he was two minutes away from bleeding out. The young man was repeating "kill me." They gave his request brief consideration, before a medic rushed in to stanch the wounds.