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Osama bin Laden – the iconic al-Qaeda leader who inspired a global jihad against the United States – was killed by U.S. Special Forces in a fierce firefight in Pakistan. His body was recovered and his identity confirmed, President Barack Obama revealed in a rare, late-night broadcast from the White House just before midnight.

A U.S. official later said Mr. bin Laden had been buried at sea.

"This marks the most significant achievement to date" in the war against terrorism, Mr. Obama said, adding that he hoped the unity that brought Americans together in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks would be rekindled.

"On nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda's terror: Justice has been done," he said.

The strike ends a decade-long hunt for the Saudi-born fugitive but the killing of Mr. bin Laden may also serve to enflame the extremist Islamic jihad rather than signal a decisive victory for Mr. Obama who vowed to target the architect of the Sept 11, 2001, hijackings that destroyed New York's twin towers and damaged the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people.

A crowd of hundreds gathered outside the White House to celebrate, chanting, "USA, USA." Crowds also gathered elsewhere in the country and around the world.

Mr. Obama gave few details of the raid but said that the suspected location of the al-Qaeda leader first emerged last August. Once it was confirmed, only days ago, that Mr. bin Laden was in a compound inside Pakistan, Mr. Obama ordered the Special Forces attack.

Last night, in a televised address to Americans and the world, Mr. Obama said no Americans were hurt during an intense fire fight in Abbottabad, about 116 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, during which the al-Qaeda leader and others were killed. They were apparently airlifted out – with Mr. bin Laden's body – by helicopters.

"I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children," Mr. Obama said.

"Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. … After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."

After Mr. bin Laden was killed, senior administration officials said the body would be handled according to Islamic practice and tradition. That practice calls for the body to be buried within 24 hours, the official said. Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world's most wanted terrorist would have been difficult, the official said. So the U.S. decided to bury him at sea. The official, who spoke Monday on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security matters, did not immediately say where that occurred.

Esham ul Haq, 30, a resident of Abbottabad, said he heard explosions and gunfire around 12:45 a.m. local time (PST) and the noises continued until about 2 a.m., followed by silence. Mr. Haq said he lives about three km. away from a residential area of the city known as Bilal Town, which appeared to be the focus of the battle.

While it was difficult to make out what was happening in the darkness, Mr. Haq said he counted at least three helicopters overhead.

"I think one of them was shot down, maybe from shooting below," Mr. Haq said.

George W. Bush, president during 9/11, said the killing was a "momentous achievement." Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the death brings justice to Canadians killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and their families: "Canada receives the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden with sober satisfaction."

The impact of Mr. bin Laden's demise could ripple across the region, where his al-Qaeda network still maintains training camps that produce some of the suicide bombers and fighters who continue to attack Western forces in Afghanistan.

Only last week, the NATO-led forces here said they killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, which borders Pakistan. Officials said Abu Hafs al-Najdi, also known as Abdul Ghani, directed killings against tribal leaders and American troops.

Mr. bin Laden operated training camps in Afghanistan and held sway over Taliban leaders during their brief oppressive rule here. His death may not diminish the Taliban insurgency, which portrays itself as an Afghan nationalist jihad against foreign invaders, and could inspire a new spasm of violence in reaction to what they will likely call the martyrdom of a Muslim idol.

But for many Afghans, the elimination of Mr. bin Laden and the possible disorder in the ranks of jihadist groups, the news of the terror leader's death brought relief.

"If this news is true, it is good for everyone in Afghanistan – the government and the Afghan people," said Assadulla Wafa, a member of the Afghanistan High Peace Council

Moments after Mr. Obama spoke, American officials cautioned that the events could lead to heightened threats against the United States.

Foreign Affairs in Ottawa also updated its website advisory after the Obama speech for Canadians who may be in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It said Canadians should avoid all gatherings and demonstrations in those countries, and to stay away from areas where they may take place, as they could turn violent without warning.

The stunning killing of Mr. bin Laden comes during widespread uprisings that have toppled Arab governments in several countries and threatens to recast the entire Middle East and North Africa after decades of rigid authoritarian rule. It adds to the tide of change sweeping the Islamic world.

Although Mr. bin Laden has been considered an iconic – rather than active – leader of radical, violent Islam in recent years, his killing will be widely seen as a triumph for Mr. Obama, who shifted U.S. military power from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama said the killing of Mr. bin Laden won't be the end of the war against Islamic extremism. But he stressed that "the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam." Mr. bin Laden, the President said, was never a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims as well as others.

Security and intelligence agencies in the United States went on high alert – expecting jihadists to seek to avenge the killing of Mr. bin Laden by launching new attacks aimed at Americans both at home and abroad.

The discovery that Mr. bin Laden was killed in Pakistan will be profoundly embarrassing for the country.

Mr. Obama lauded Pakistan's broad co-operation in anti-terrorist efforts – a chance to mend fences with Islamabad after months of worsening relations over America's stepped-up drone strikes and rising Pakistani anger over of U.S. agents operating with impunity in Pakistan.

However, it remained unclear whether Pakistan was told in advance that U.S. special forces were launching the strike to kill or capture Mr. bin Laden.

Mr. Obama said he called Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari to tell him of the success of the operation.

U.S. officials have complained more vocally in recent weeks that Pakistan is playing a double game on terrorism, giving shelter to some jihadi groups while accepting billions of U.S. dollars in exchange for help with tracking down other groups.

Until now, the focus of those U.S. complaints have been two networks accused of links to global terrorism: Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Punjab province; and the Haqqani group, headquartered in the rugged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Haqqanis are known to be especially close to Al-Qaeda, making them a top U.S. priority. Parts of the tribal regions along Pakistan western border have been pounded with an increasing number of U.S. drone strikes in recent years, as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency tries to kill members of the Haqqani network and their Al-Qaeda allies.

That most visible part of the so-called war on terror has played out in Pakistan's remote areas, but some of its key moments – like this one – have occurred in or near the country's teeming cities. Before the death of bin Laden, the biggest U.S. victory after 9/11 was arguably the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, who stands accused of masterminding the attacks on the twin towers in New York.

Like his master, Mr. bin Laden, KSM was tracked down not far from Islamabad, in the adjacent city of Rawalpindi, during a raid by intelligence operatives in 2003.

The Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader became both the face of global terrorism and a symbol of the futile efforts to seek it out and fight it.

While his death is a victory for the anti-terror crusade by the U.S. and its allies, it's unlikely his demise will end the now-fractured network of terror cells that reaches across the world.

Counter-terror experts have noted al-Qaeda has grown into a more fragmented movement, its violent ideas having been franchised over to local allies who can operate without a central, larger-than-life figurehead leader.

"Al-Qaeda is an organization that evolved into an ideology, with Osama bin Laden's message receiving widespread attention in the Muslim world," said Peter Bergen, one of the rare Western journalists who has met Mr. bin Laden in person.

"Clearly, the ideology will survive Osama bin Laden's death."

Al-Qaeda has farmed out attacks to regional players in East Africa, Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, local radical partners it inspired and funded over the years, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.

"It will be a messy blow to the main al-Qaeda structure but the threat of terrorism will continue."

At the same time, there are other examples of terrorist groups losing momentum after the capture of their charismatic leader.

After Turkey seized Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdistan Workers Party, an initial wave of retaliatory attacks eventually petered and his supporters ended their armed campaign. In Peru, the arrest of Abimael Guzman Reymoso of the Shining Path decimated the violent Maoist movement.

Mr. bin Laden reached out to various associated groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, Jemaah Islamiah, elsewhere in southeast Asia, the Salafi Group in Algeria and other insurgents in Indonesia and Yemen. These groups provided not only a striking capacity but also training facilities, filling in for the loss of al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan.

"These groups play an equally important role. We are seeing terrorist capability in the regional, local Islamic radical groups," Mr. Gunaratna said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has been severely crippled, losing its sanctuary in Afghanistan. Top operational planners have been captured -- such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- or killed, such as Muhammad Atef. More than 3,000 alleged members or supporters have been arrested, many of whom are now languishing in indefinite detention at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The U.S. and its allies have seized massive caches of weapons, handbooks and, more importantly, computers, videotapes and other electronics such as satellite and cellular phones that can be examined to retrace their former owners' activities and whereabouts.

Financial regulators have frozen tens of millions of dollars in assets from individuals and groups alleged to be raising funds for terrorism.

But al-Qaeda's brand of terror hasn't been put out of business. It has been accused of having a hand in everything from deadly 2002 bombings in Bali that left hundreds dead to the recent uprisings in Libya and Yemen to last week's bombing in Marrakesh, which killed 15 people in the usually peaceful country's deadliest attack since 2003.

- with reports from Anna Mehler Paperny, Tu Thanh Ha, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press