The leader of the Islamic State (IS) group has been killed in an overnight US special forces raid in north-western Syria, senior US officials say.
“Thanks to the skill and bravery of our armed forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi,” President Joe Biden said.
Qurayshi detonated a bomb that killed him and members of his own family, administration officials told US media.
Syrian first responders said they found the bodies of 13 people after the raid.
Several US helicopters reportedly landed on the outskirts of the opposition-held town of Atmeh, which is in northern Idlib province and is close to the border with Turkey, around midnight on Thursday (22:00 GMT on Wednesday).
NEW — U.S. forces & helicopters have opened fire on the surrounded house in Dayr Balut, #Atmeh.
Audio clear here:pic.twitter.com/5zDPFSOz5R
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 2, 2022
Local sources said the troops faced stiff resistance on the ground, and that they came under fire from heavy anti-aircraft guns mounted on vehicles.
Gunfire and shelling were heard for two hours before the helicopters left.
The New York Times reported that one helicopter was abandoned after suffering a mechanical problem, and that it was later destroyed in a US air strike. Photos of the wreckage have been posted online.
President Biden said all Americans involved had returned safely from the operation, which he declared would “protect the American people and our allies, and make the world a safer place”.
An AFP news agency correspondent who visited a two-storey home that appeared to be targeted in the raid said it bore the scars of an intense battle – with blood-splattered walls, torn window frames, charred ceilings and a partly collapsed roof.
The White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defence, said in a statement that its first responders reached the building at 03:15 and recovered the bodies of 13 people, including six children and four women.
They also found an injured girl whose other family members were killed in the raid, the organisation said. She was taken to hospital along with a man who was injured when he approached the building during the clashes to see what was happening, it added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, also put the death toll at 13, but said four children and three women were killed.
The senior US official told Reuters news agency: “At the beginning of the operation the terrorist target exploded a bomb that killed him and members of his own family, including women and children.”
“While we are still assessing the results of this operation, this appears to be the same cowardly terrorist tactic we saw in the 2019 operation that eliminated al-Baghdadi,” he added.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qurayshi’s predecessor, killed himself and three children in October 2019 by detonating an explosive vest during a US special forces raid on a hideout that was only 16km (10 miles) away from Atmeh.
North-western Syria is a stronghold of jihadist groups and Turkish-backed rebel factions that are fierce rivals of IS.