Top al-Qaida Figure Killed in Pakistan
By ROBERT H. REID – AFP
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — One of al-Qaida's top figures, Abu Laith al-Libi, has been killed in Pakistan, an Islamist Web site announced Thursday. Pakistani officials and residents said a dozen people, including seven Arabs, died in a missile strike in northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border.
Al-Libi was believed to be the key link between the Taliban and al-Qaida and was blamed for masterminding the bombing an American base while Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting Afghanistan last year. He was listed among the Americans' 12 most-wanted men with a bounty of $200,000 on his head.
Pakistani officials denied any knowledge of al-Libi's death. The killing of such a major al-Qaida figure is likely to embarrass President Pervez Musharraf, who has repeatedly said he would not sanction U.S. military action against al-Qaida members believed to be regrouping in the lawless area near the Afghan border.
A Web site that frequently carries announcements from militant groups said al-Libi had been "martyred with a group of his brothers in the land of Muslim Pakistan" but gave no further details.
However, Pakistani intelligence officials and residents said a missile struck a compound late Monday or early Tuesday about 2 1/2 miles from the Pakistani town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, killing 12 people, including seven Arabs as well as Pakistanis and Central Asians.
Residents said they could hear U.S. Predator drones flying in the area shortly before the explosion, which destroyed the compound.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn said the victims were buried in a local cemetery.
Rumors spread Thursday in the border area that al-Libi or his deputy died in the missile strike. But Pakistan's Interior Ministry spokesman, Javed Iqbal Cheema, insisted authorities had "no information" indicating al-Libi was dead.
One intelligence official in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the bodies of those killed were badly mangled by the force of the explosion and it was difficult to identify them. The official estimated 12 people were killed, including Arabs, Turkomen from Central Asia and local Taliban members.
In Washington, a Western official said that "it appears at this point that al-Libi has met his demise," but declined to talk about the circumstances. "It was a major success in taking one of the top terrorists in the world off the street," the official said. He added that the death occurred "within the last few days."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not "have anything definitive" to say on reports of al-Libi's death.
The Libyan-born al-Libi was among the most high-profile figures in al-Qaida after its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
In spring 2007, al-Qaida's media wing, Al-Sahab, released a video interview with a bearded man identified as al-Libi. In it, he accuses Shiite Muslims of fighting alongside American forces in Iraq, and claimed that mujahedeen would crush foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. says al-Libi was likely behind the February 2007 bombing at the U.S. base at Bagram in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney. The attack killed 23 people but Cheney was deep inside the sprawling base and was not hurt.
The bombing added to the impression that Western forces and the shaky government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are vulnerable to assault by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
Al-Libi also led an al-Qaida training camp and appeared in a number of al-Qaida Internet videos.
He was known to maintain close ties with tribes living on the Pakistani side of the mountainous border, where U.S. officials believe al-Qaida has been regrouping.
A Pakistani intelligence official said that al-Libi was based near Mir Ali until late 2003 when he moved back into Afghanistan to take charge of al-Qaida operations on both sides of the border area. But he retained links with North Waziristan, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Mir Ali is the second-biggest town in North Waziristan and has a strong presence of foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks with links to al-Qaida who fled to Pakistan's tribal regions after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.
The U.S. has in the past sought to kill top al-Qaida leaders but with limited success.
Al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's second-in-command, was the target of a U.S. airstrike in Pakistan near the Afghan border on Jan. 13, 2006, but he was not at the site of the attack. Pakistan condemned the missile strike that killed at least 17 people in the village of Damadola in the Bajur tribal area, about four miles inside Pakistan.
Pakistani security officials said four top operatives were believed to be killed in that strike. The officials said the operatives included Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, who the U.S. Justice Department called an explosives and poisons expert; Abu Obaidah al-Masri, the al-Qaida chief responsible for attacks on U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan; and Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, a Moroccan and relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law.
Some of the officials also said a fourth man, Khalid Habib, the al-Qaida operations chief along the Afghan-Pakistan border, was believed to be dead.
Associated Press correspondents Paul Schemm in Cairo, Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.
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