'Terror chief killed' in Pakistan missile attack

Click to follow
The Independent Online

An al-Qa'ida explosives and chemical weapons expert and a relative of the terror network's No. 2 leader were among three top operatives believed killed in a US missile strike in Pakistan last week, Pakistani security officials said today.

Pakistani authorities have said at least four foreign militants were killed in last Friday's attack in Damadola village near the Afghan border that officials say targeted - but missed - al-Qa'ida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

A security official said three notable al-Qa'ida figures were in the village at the time of the attack and that their bodies were believed to have been taken away by sympathisers. He said one of them was Midhat Mursi, an Egyptian.

The US Justice Department cites Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, as an explosives expert and poisons trainer who trained hundreds of mujahedeen at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan near the eastern city of Jalalabad.

The US agency has said that his exact whereabouts were unknown but that he may be residing in Pakistan, and offered 5 million dollars for information leading to his arrest.

The Pakistani official named two other foreigners as suspected killed in the missile strike: Abu Ubaida, an al-Qa'ida chief in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province, across the border from the strike site; and Abdul Rehman al-Misri, a relative of al-Zawahri, possibly his son-in-law.

He stressed that their bodies have not been found.

"We do not have any evidence to prove that they have been killed, but we have indications that they were there and were among those bodies that were taken away," said the official. He refused to give further details.

A second Pakistani security official confirmed that agencies were investigating the three names as possible victims of the air strike, which officials say also killed 18 local people.

The Justice Department Web Site says that since 1999, Mursi has distributed training manuals with recipes for crude chemical and biological weapons. Some of these manuals were recovered by US forces in Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials said they had no information on the reported identities of the dead and CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said the agency could not comment.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said that the government does not know the identities of the foreigners believed killed in the missile strike.

"We are still investigating. There's a possibility that some foreigners were there, but we still do not know," said Sherpao, who was in New York with visiting Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

Sherpao said the government had not retrieved the bodies of any of the four foreign militants reported killed in the raid. He said the bodies may have been taken by a local pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Faqir Mohammed, who also is being hunted by authorities.

Provincial authorities said sympathisers took the bodies of four or five foreign militants to bury them in the mountains near the Afghan border, thereby preventing their identification.

"Efforts are under way to investigate further," said Shah Zaman Khan, director-general of media relations for Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

He said authorities were also looking for Faqir Mohammed and another prominent pro-Taliban cleric accused of harbouring militants. Both men were allegedly in Damadola and survived the assault.

Intelligence officials say al-Zawahri is thought to have sent some of his aides in his place to an Islamic holiday dinner to which he'd been invited in Damadola on the night of the attack.

Hours after the attack, an Associated Press reporter visited the village, which consists of a half-dozen widely scattered houses on a hillside four miles from the Afghan border.

Residents said then that all the dead were local people and that no one had taken any bodies away. However, it appeared feasible bodies or wounded could have been spirited away in the darkness after the attack, which took place about 3am.

Pakistan maintains it was not given advance word of the airstrike, reportedly carried out by unmanned Predator drones flying from Afghanistan, and has condemned it as killing innocent civilians.

Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the attack, denouncing the US and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ended Pakistan's support of the Taliban regime in late 2001 and has himself been targeted by al-Qa'ida attacks.