Pakistan probes reports al-Qaeda number two killed

Pakistan is investigating whether al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a deadly United States air strike on a village near the Afghan border, Pakistani and US officials said on Saturday.

US Central Intelligence Agency sources said they had unconfirmed indications that a high-level target, possibly Osama bin Laden’s Egyptian number two and chief ideologue, was killed by a US Predator drone in Pakistan.

“We are investigating and as of now we are not in a position to say yes or no,” Major General Shaukat Sultan, the spokesperson for President Pervez Musharraf and for Pakistan’s military, told Agence France Presse when asked to confirm whether Zawahiri was killed in the strike.

“The investigation is going on as to what happened there,” Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid said, without elaborating. He refused to comment on whether Zawahiri may have been involved.

At least 18 people including women and children died when missiles hit the village of Damadola, part of Mamund town in northwestern Pakistan’s restive Bajur tribal region bordering Afghanistan early Friday, residents said.

Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said a number of the dead appeared to be foreigners with suspected terror links.

“It seems there were some people who were not locals and they were possibly involved in sabotage activities. Most of the bodies were charred,” said Sherpao.

“But we have no information about Zawahiri.
We are investigating what caused the explosions.”

US intelligence sources said that the CIA had indications that a top al-Qaeda operative—maybe Zawahiri—might have died in an attack by a remotely-piloted US drone.

“The CIA has indications that a high-level al-Qaeda operative was killed by a Predator strike in Bajur. They are confirming an operation in Bajur,” one of the sources said on condition of anonymity.

“They say the strike may have killed Zawahiri.”

The US Defence Department denied that the US military had carried out any attacks in the area. “There is no reason to believe the US military is conducting operations there,” said Lieutenant Colonel Todd Vician.

Villagers in Damadola said they heard aircraft or helicopters before the strike and that the only victims were local people.

The target was a cluster of three houses owned by a jeweller named Abdul Ghafoor, whose relatives were among the victims, resident Waheed Gul said by telephone.

“According to our information there were no foreigners among the 18 who were martyred in the attack,” Gul said.

Local legislator Haroon Rasheed, who represents the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party, said he had called for a protest rally in the town to condemn the attack on “innocent people”.

The CIA is known to conduct operations along the long and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the hunt for Bin Laden and his deputies, believing tribesmen may have sheltered them after a US-led operation overthrew Afghanistan’s pro-al-Qaeda Taliban regime in late 2001.

Locals said a senior Egyptian al-Qaeda commander named Hamza Rabia was killed in the tribal zone in December by a missile fired from a Predator, although Pakistan said the blast happened when munitions exploded inside his house.

US television network ABC quoted Pakistani military sources as saying five of the 18 people killed in Friday’s blast were “high level al-Qaeda figures”, and that forensic tests were being conducted to identify the remains.

An eye surgeon, Zawahiri has become al-Qaeda’s most senior spokesperson in videos released in recent months as bin Laden has remained out of the public eye.

Zawahiri appeared in a new video released last week, calling on the United States to withdraw from Iraq, leading some analysts to speculate that he was now the group’s effective leader.

The United States has been offering a $25-million reward for Zawahiri since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Zawahiri became a radical Islamist in the 1960s and was a leader of Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood group.

He was implicated in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the massacre of foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997. After the September 11 attacks, he was seen in video tapes with Bin Laden. - AFP

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