Miranshah, Pakistan (AFP) Feb 1, 2008
A top Al-Qaeda commander who led Osama bin Laden's terror network in Afghanistan was believed to have been killed when a missile fired by a US drone hit his Pakistani hideout, officials said Friday.
Abu Laith al-Libi is said to be one of bin Laden's top five lieutenants and allegedly masterminded a deadly bombing at a US military base in Afghanistan during a visit by US Vice-President Dick Cheney last year.
Pakistani security officials said the Libyan was one of 13 Al-Qaeda militants staying at a compound in the country's North Waziristan tribal region when it was destroyed in the air raid early on Tuesday.
"Al-Libi was there at the time of the strike. No one survived, we believe he was killed," one intelligence official based in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, told AFP.
"The missile attack was carried out by a US Predator," the official said, quoting residents who witnessed a pilotless drone circling in the area for at least two days before the attack.
The US military chief hailed in Washington "the elimination" of the top operative, and said the United States would work with Pakistan to go after others hiding in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
"I think the strike was a very important one, a very lethal one," said Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mullen, who said he will travel soon to Islamabad to meet Pakistani leaders, would not comment on the specifics of the operation that killed al-Libi.
But he said "the elimination of someone like that is a very important outcome in terms of this long war".
He said the United States remained concerned about safe havens that Al-Qaeda has managed to establish in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
"Being able to have an impact in the safe havens I think is important. We're very committed to working with the Pakistanis on this.
In an apparent revenge attack, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed and 15 injured on Friday when a suicide bomber rammed his car into a checkpost a few kilometres from the scene of the air strike, the army said.
"It appears to be a revenge attack," an unnamed security official told AFP.
Al-Libi was number five on a classified US Central Intelligence Agency wanted list seen by AFP, with a five-million-dollar bounty on his head. The top two spots are occupied by bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
He had appeared in several Al-Qaeda propaganda videos, but security officials and militant sources said he was also a key field commander who linked up with Afghanistan's Taliban movement.
"It will dent Osama bin Laden's close network," a top Pakistani militant source told AFP. "He was one of the few among the close circles of bin Laden who would come and fight on the front."
Islamist websites first announced the death of al-Libi, who is said to be in his 40s. "We announce the good news to the Islamic world: Sheikh Abu Laith al-Qassimi al-Libi has fallen a martyr on the soil of Muslim Pakistan," said an announcement on the Al-Fajr Information Centre site.
"The sheikh's martyrdom will only strengthen our fire and burn the enemies of our people," it said.
Al-Libi was at a guesthouse attached to the home of a local Taliban commander three kilometres (two miles) from Mir Ali, the second biggest town in North Waziristan, when the missile hit, Pakistani officials said.
Armed militants had prevented local tribesmen from attending the funerals of those killed, and were still blocking off the thickly forested blast site in a sign that a high-profile target was among the dead, they said.
The Taliban commander who owned the compound, 45-year-old Abdus Sattar, was loyal to one of Pakistan's most wanted men, Islamist tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud, the sources said.
Pakistani and US officials have blamed Mehsud for orchestrating the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December.
Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said earlier Friday he could not confirm al-Libi's death.
Asked about the reports of his death, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: "I don't have anything definitive for you on that."
Previous US missile attacks have claimed the lives of several militants in Pakistan but are an embarrassment for Islamabad, which says it does not allow foreign military operations on its soil.
A US Predator targeted Al-Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in January 2006, killing several rebels and civilians but missing him.
A long-time jihadist, al-Libi was a leader of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, opposed to Colonel Moamer Kadhafi.
Al-Libi was accused of involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 23 people outside Bagram air base in Afghanistan during a visit by Cheney in February 2007.
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