Islamabad probing report of US strike on al-Qaeda figure


Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 5

Pakistan probed reports yesterday that a senior al-Qaeda figure was among six people killed in a suspected US missile strike, while in Washington Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expressed anger that his country’s sovereignty had been violated.

Pakistan’s army said it had not confirmed that Monday’s strike killed al-Qaeda operative Abu Khabab al-Masri, described by Washington as an expert who trained terrorists in the use of poisons and explosives.

But two Pakistani intelligence officials said they believed al-Masri had died, and a US official in Washington expressed cautious optimism. The US is offering a US$5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

“There is a real sense that this guy is gone,” the US official said.

But he cautioned that there was no material evidence yet to confirm al-Masri’s death, such as a photograph of the dead man at the bomb site.

The pre-dawn strike on a border village in the South Waziristan tribal region came hours before Gilani met US President George W. Bush at the White House.

There is rising Western pressure on the four-month-old Pakistan government to act against Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds in its frontier region with Afghanistan amid concern that peace deals have given militants more freedom to operate.

The two leaders made no mention of the missile attack when they addressed reporters on the White House lawn. They expressed common resolve to fight terrorism.

But later in an interview with CNN, Gilani said the strike was “certainly” a violation of sovereignty if the US had acted unilaterally. He said he told Bush that both countries should do a better job of sharing intelligence so that Pakistan could fight extremists itself.

Gilani said an inquiry about the strike was under way.

Asked why US officials were reluctant to share more intelligence, Gilani said, “basically, Americans are a little impatient.”

The US military in Afghanistan denied it launched the missile strike.

“It was not us,” said 1st Lieutenant Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the US-led coalition.

That denial would not preclude US involvement. Previous such strikes inside Pakistan are believed to have been conducted by the CIA using Predator drones.

Al-Masri was previously reported killed in a January 2006 missile strike by a CIA Predator drone in the Pakistani tribal region of Bajaur that targeted and missed al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.